During a hysterical call to 911, a Paulding County father pleaded with his 3-year-old son to keep breathing, making it hard for the operator to understand what had happened.
“Holston, stay with me! Stay with me, Holston!” David Cole said. “Can you hear me? Daddy loves you. Holston. Holston, please. Please.”
The inquisitive toddler had found his father’s pistol in a backpack and shot himself in the chest. He had celebrated his third birthday on March 31, and on April 26 Holston David Cole died after being taken to the county hospital. The unspeakable tragedy left the Coles and their community in shock, including a large church congregation that united to help.
On Thursday, the Paulding Sheriff’s Office announced that no criminal charges would be filed in Holston’s death, calling the incident an accidental shooting. But that decision highlighted the inconsistencies in similar cases in Georgia, where there are no laws in place regarding how a gun should be stored.
Adults are criminally liable in Georgia only when they intentionally or knowingly provide a child access to a handgun. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health database, 69 children under the age of 15 died from unintentional gunfire in 2013, the latest year for which such data is available.
“The lack of any kind of regulation on storing guns puts Georgia in the mainstream,” Roswell attorney John Monroe told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Many gun owners keep their weapons on nightstands or even under their pillow, Monroe said. Laws regarding where guns can be stored would challenge Second Amendment rights, he said.
“To come out with a blanket law that says you can’t do that, a lot of people would probably ignore it,” Monroe said.
This year, seven children have been unintentionally shot in Georgia, and three, including Holston, were killed, according to Dr. Viviana Goldenberg, a spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action. Goldenberg, who practices family medicine, said a gun left within reach of a child is negligence, not an accident.
Her group, which is part of Everytown For Gun Safety, advocates safety measures, such as locks and storing guns and ammunition separately.
“Just telling children, ‘Do not touch that,’ is not going to change their behavior,” Goldenberg said.
Around 7 a.m. on April 26, young Holston Cole found the .380 caliber, semi-automatic pistol and shot himself in the chest inside his family’s Camp Circle home, near Dallas, according to investigators. The boy was taken to WellStar Paulding Hospital but did not survive.
Holston got the gun out of a backpack in the home, Sgt. Ashley Henson said. An autopsy conducted by the GBI determined the boy shot himself. The Sheriff’s Office consulted with the Paulding district attorney during the investigation, Henson said.
“Detectives confirmed that this was an accidental shooting and that charges will not be pursued,” Henson said.
About 1,000 mourners attended the funeral for Holston, who is survived by his parents, David and Haley Cole, and 1-year-old twin sisters, Paisley and Macy. On Thursday, the Cole family released a statement through a pastor.
“We are grateful that the focus stayed on Holston and what an amazing boy he was,” the family said. “We’re also thankful for the way the Sheriff’s Department handled this tragedy in our lives. We would appreciate your continued prayers while we continue to heal.”
Sometimes, though, families who are grieving a child’s death must also deal with criminal charges.
In November, 6-year-old Ja’Mecca Smith found a loaded gun between two sofa cushions in her family’s Atlanta apartment. Her father, Demarqo Smith, four of her siblings and another adult were home at the time, but no one saw the little girl point the gun at her head and pull the trigger. Demarqo Smith was later charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.
On Oct. 27, 2-year-old Waylon Dennington found his father’s semi-automatic handgun resting in a holster on his parents’ bed. His father, Grant Dennington, was in the bathroom when the gun discharged, killing Waylon on the scene. Dennington was not charged, Acworth police said.
There have been many shootings involving children, yet people are often numb to the seriousness of the issue, Goldenberg said Thursday.
“The question at the end of the day is, “Do we think the law is going to change this?” she said. “It would help, absolutely. But we need to change the culture. We need for everyone to understand that a gun left unattended and unsecured is going to let a child have access.”
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