His father’s truck needed a good cleaning, the kind when even the floor mats come out. And 3-year-old Jaxon Kullen White was close by as his parents bustled around the pickup on that Sunday afternoon.
As his father threw away trash, Jaxon’s mother cleaned the rear passenger door of the silver Chevy pickup. Jaxon, having climbed into the front seat, reached for the Glock handgun inside the truck’s middle console. He was staring down the barrel as both of his parents shouted his name.
The boy fired a single shot. The bullet struck him in the face and exited through the back of his head. He was pronounced dead at Athens Regional Hospital, the same hospital where he had come into the world three years and two days before.
In 2015, 17 children were shot unintentionally by other children or themselves in Georgia. In addition, two children shot their mothers, one of whom died.
Jaxon was also among the nine who died. The 2016 numbers were higher: 12 young Georgians were killed in 23 shootings. While there is no official count of how many children are involved in unintentional shootings, gun safety advocates place Georgia in the top three states for the most incidents, along with Florida and Texas.
“We are now living in a society of guns,” says Lindsey Donovan, Georgia chapter leader of Moms Demand Action (and a handgun owner). “People feel like they need to have guns to protect themselves, and that’s their right.”
When children find loaded weapons and shoot themselves or someone else, the owner of the gun isn’t always held responsible. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News into 42 shootings in Georgia in 2015 and 2016 revealed a wide range of actions taken by police. Not all gun owners are charged even when a child dies, but if the owner is black, he or she is much more likely to be charged, while white owners avoid any charges, an analysis of the shootings shows.
“When you have those type of inconsistencies, it makes people not have faith and trust in their judicial system,” Cedric Alexander, DeKalb County public safety director, told Channel 2. “And it’s not so much that the criminal justice system is wrong; it’s the application oftentimes, the investigation, our own personal spin we may put on looking at making sure that it’s done right.”
No charges were filed in Jaxon’s death after an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Jefferson Police Department.
‘They’re saying it was an accident’
It was just five days after Christmas 2015. Marcus Lewis, a Salem Middle School student, was at a 13-year-old friend’s house the day he was allegedly shot by Aaron Harcum, according to DeKalb County police. Harcum, then 17, told police he had found the gun in the woods and hadn’t intended to shoot the younger boy.
Harcum was arrested and later indicted on involuntary manslaughter and firearm charges — both felonies. He is currently free on $25,000 bond, jail records show.
“They’re saying it was an accident, but to me if you get shot (in the face), that’s not an accident,” Marcus’s mother, Sonia Wheeler, said. “And I don’t believe it.”
Harcum’s case is still pending.
Teenagers like Marcus Lewis were the victims in slightly more than one-third of the 42 unintentional shootings of children that the AJC and WSB examined. The youngest victims were 1-year-olds, and 17 were 5 or younger. All but eight of the Georgia victims were boys. The racial breakdown:
- 25 were African-American
- 11 were white
- two were Hispanic
- one was Asian.
Of the completed investigations, charges were filed in roughly half the cases. When the victims and gun owners were black, 70 percent were charged.
Of 42 shootings involving children, three were never identified by name, so their race could not be ascertained.
3 kids killed in one month
Georgia laws aren’t specific regarding how unintentional shootings should be handled, and that makes it difficult for investigators, according to police agencies.
“You have to look at each individual case. Look at that gun owner. Look at that entire piece,” Alexander said. “Did the kids go into a room and open up a secure location? Well that’s something different or did they just happen to trip over a weapon, pick it up, play with it and then something unfortunate occurs.”
In the Georgia cases, about half of the shootings were self-inflicted. Other times, the child shot another child or an adult, often a family member or close friend. Though the details differ from case to case, the startling sound of unexpected gunfire changes lives in a split second.
Three children died in separate incidents during a one-month period in the fall of 2015.
A Cobb County father and former Marine was home with his two young sons on Oct. 27, when he put his semi-automatic handgun on his bed and went to the bathroom. He’d told the boys to stay in the living room, but instead, the boys entered the bedroom. Waylon James Dennington, 2, picked up the gun and shot himself in the head. The toddler died at his Acworth home, according to police. No charges were filed in the case.
Fifteen days later, on Nov. 11, a second Georgia 2-year-old was killed, this time in Jackson County. Jayden Jamar Clay was in the living room with his twin brother, and their mother was in the kitchen of the family’s home. Though the mother’s boyfriend wasn’t home at the time, his .45-caliber gun was left in Jayden’s reach. The boy died after shooting himself once in the head.
Two days after Jayden’s death, Christopher Dwayne Askins, 37, was charged with second-degree child cruelty, possession of a gun by a convicted felon and drug possession.
Then, on Nov. 28, 2015, 6-year-old Ja’Mecca India Smith found her father’s loaded gun between the sofa cushions at her family’s southwest Atlanta townhouse. At least four other children and two adults were home when Ja’Mecca shot herself in the head and died. The following day, her father was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.
‘How can you blame a 2-year-old?’
When charges aren’t filed, police typically say it’s because grieving families are already dealing with enough pain. Sometimes, police agencies rule the shooting accidental and close the case.
“I think you do have to look at the total circumstances, and there may be instances where charging someone might not necessarily be the best decision,” Maj. Steve Strickland with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office said. “Anybody with kids, they will tell you a story where they turned around and their kid was doing something far away from them crazy, and you’re like, ‘Good grief. I just didn’t pay attention to them for a minute.’ And it can happen.”
Two of the cases in which no charges were filed involved young boys both shot in their homes.
Holston Cole, 3, found his father’s gun in a backpack in the living room of his Paulding County home on an April morning in 2016. As his mother made breakfast and his father dressed his sisters, Holston shot and killed himself. In October, an 18-month-old boy was with his 3-year-old brother in a bedroom of their Henry County home when a single shot was fired. The younger boy, Noah Gilmore, was killed.
In Holston’s case, the sheriff’s office declined to file charges. Noah’s death is still under investigation. For groups like Moms Demand Action, not filing charges means irresponsible gun owners are not held accountable.
“How can you blame a 2-year-old for shooting themselves when there should not have been unsecured gun in the room, loaded? It just doesn’t make sense,” Donovan, Georgia’s leader of the group, said. “If my 9-year-old and 6-year-old are in a room with my 9mm Glock, that’s my fault.”
‘There’s too much violence as it is’
Donovan, who lives in Savannah, bought her handgun during one of her husband’s Army deployments. A lawn maintenance man’s aggressive behavior scared her, and Donovan wanted to be able to defend herself and her children.
Every week, she goes to a gun range to practice, and Donovan isn’t bothered when others — like other parents — ask her about her gun. It gives her a chance to show responsible behavior, such as storing her gun locked and away from children’s reach.
“It’s our responsibility as parents, caregivers, gun owners, non-owners, to responsibly store our guns, locked up and making sure kids are never in a home or car with an unsecured gun,” Donovan said. “It’s common sense.”
By the first week of February, Georgia recorded its first unintentional juvenile shooting death of the year when a Fort Valley boy shot himself while playing with a gun. Fi’ya Hollis, 6, died after shooting himself in the torso, according to police. The shooting remains under investigation.
Also in February, a Coweta County 2-year-old found his mother’s 9mm handgun in her purse and fired a single round inside a restaurant. The boy’s 11-year-old sister was struck by a screw that came from the bottom portion of the gun’s holster, but was not seriously injured, according to police. The children’s mother, Jennifer Cotton of Newnan, was charged with reckless conduct.
Sonia Wheeler, the DeKalb woman who lost her only child to gunfire, says she doesn’t want anyone else to suffer the same pain. Her son, Marcus, loved to play basketball and hoped to run track in high school. Now, Wheeler has only her memories and photographs. Her son’s death, like so many others, could have been prevented.
“I want people to know and to understand,” Wheeler said. “I want the children to understand. I want the parents to understand. There’s too much violence as it is right now in the world.”
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