Lucas Heagren was all smiles as he fired the .22 rifle he received for Christmas. The 3-year-old was taught to respect guns and knew to only handle them in an adult’s company. But when Lucas found the .45-caliber pistol his father, Joshua Heagren, had temporarily hidden under the couch, he grabbed it and shot himself through the eye.
According to the Summit County Medical Examiner, Lucas’ death was ruled a homicide.
But New York Times reporters Michael Luo and Mike McIntire’s investigation, “Children and Guns - the Hidden Toll,” part of the “Bearing Arms” series, revealed a different truth - accidental shootings are being severely undercounted, occurring almost twice as often as records indicate.
“We didn’t set out to look for this undercount at first,” Luo said. “We were just thinking that something useful could be done by looking at firearm deaths of children.”
What they discovered, however, is that accidental killings were not reflected in official statistics, the very statistics that have framed the debate over safe-storage laws. A key argument of the National Rifle Association is that accidental deaths of children by firearms is insignificant, arguing that “children were more likely to be killed by falls, poisoning or environmental factors.”
Luo traveled to North Carolina and requested from the state a spreadsheet of all firearms deaths of children ages 14 and under and the accompanying codes that detail the manner of death. He then went the medical examiners office to examine medical examiner reports on these deaths. When he started searching names and reading news articles about what happened, he immediately recognized a trend - many deaths classified as intentional were accidental in nature.
“They die in the households of police officers and drug dealers, in broken homes and close-knit families, on rural farms and in city apartments. Some adults whose guns were used had tried to store them safely; others were grossly negligent. Still others pulled the trigger themselves, accidentally fracturing their own families while cleaning a pistol or hunting,” writes Luo.
Cassie Culpepper’s brother was playing with a pistol their father had lent him to scare off coyotes when he fired the gun, believing it wasn’t loaded. Blood poured from her mouth. She was 11 years old.
“This whole reporting process, this is incredibly difficult stuff,” Luo said. “I would listen to a call and I’d be tearing up listening to it because you're listening to the anguish of a mother or a father over the child being shot.”
“Children and Guns- The Hidden Toll” generated a lot of discussion; it was tweeted more than 5,300 times and drew 1467 comments. A lot of newspapers picked the story up and wrote editorials about it.
“We just thought that the undercount was obviously an important issue to expose because these debates over safe storage laws are revolving around data that is flawed,” said Luo.
The coroner's classify these deaths based upon their own purposes and needs; some are necessary to charge cases, Luo said.
“There does need to be a better and more comprehensive capturing of this issue, however you accomplish this is up to the public health people.” he added.
- Read the investigation.
- Experience the series.
- When a child dies, how should it be reported? Visit the online training module.