Sean Smith was looking for the Nintendo games his mother had hidden when he found a .38 revolver in his father’s underwear drawer. It was June 5, 1989, and Sean, a cherubic, blue-eyed 10-year-old, had just returned from school in Miramar, Florida, a working class suburb outside Miami. With him was his eight-year-old sister, Erin. The two were extremely close — Sean couldn’t remember a day without her. They had the same chubby cheeks and wore their dirty blonde hair in similar banged cuts.
Sean picked up the gun and waved it around, then took aim at a louvered glass window. He later recalled that Erin, seeming frightened, tried to run out of the room. She’d just passed by the window when Sean pulled the trigger. The bullet went in through her shoulder and lodged in her heart.
Sean dropped the gun. He picked Erin up and held her on his lap, putting his hand over the wound, trying to stop the blood. Erin’s eyes rolled back in her head. He tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which he’d either heard about in school or seen on TV. He called 911. “My sister’s dead,” Sean said, his voice filled with an awful, guttural panic. “I didn’t know my dad’s, my dad’s gun was loaded.” Soon the police arrived. They sat Sean in the living room as they tried in vain to resuscitate Erin. It’s been nearly 30 years, but Sean still remembers that moment. He remembers everything about that afternoon.
The shooting death of Erin Smith made a brief mark on Florida history. In the week following her death, four more children were involved in unintentional shootings across the state. Three of the shootings were fatal. In the fourth, a six-year-old boy shot his three-year-old sister, paralyzing her for life. The events of that week and the constant drumbeat from the press were enough for the Florida legislature, which was already adjourned for the year, to go into special session to pass a law that would make it illegal to leave a gun un-stored and unsecured where a child could find it.
The law had been pending for two years, written and championed after an earlier tragedy. Nine-year-old David Berger was killed in Florida in 1987 when his friend, also nine, found a rifle under his bed, picked it up to play, pointed it at David, and shot him in the face. His parents, Bill and Susan Berger had been enraged — are still enraged — that there were no consequences for the other boy’s parents. The family had been allowed to leave the state after David’s death; the local police said there was no way they could press charges. “What we were faced with was that we were told that there’s no wrongdoing at all, that it was just a normal occurrence of everyday life that somebody could leave a loaded gun around a child,” Susan Berger says. Politically savvy and relentless, they helped write the law and secured support from their local state congressman, Harry Jennings, a Republican. The law made adults criminally liable when children were involved in these types of shootings. It helped the Bergers to have something to champion in the wake of their grief, a target at which to direct and channel their anger. “Harry Jennings did say to us: ‘I’m sure David has saved a lot of lives.’ I know that he has,” Susan Berger says.
There are around 110 fatal shootings involving children under 14 each year, according to a new study. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that at least another 1,000 are shot but survive. The incidents generally happen during the summer, many the result of idle kids, especially boys, left with hours to fill and homes to explore. “It’s clear to everyone that it must be a very traumatic event for the children,” says Lindsay Nichols of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Among those who survive the shooting, and either shot themselves or shot somebody else, it certainly can be life-changing.” Yet there is little research on those after effects. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was recognized by the psychiatric community in 1978, but the special case of child trauma wasn’t recognized until 2000, when Congress passed the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative to fund studies on the debilitating mental and emotional impact that violence has on young people.
Jaleel Abdul-Adil is a psychiatrist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helps run the school’s Urban Youth Trauma Center Institute for Juvenile Research. His goal is to get treatment providers and other caregivers to view anti-social behavior among adolescents and teens as a result of previous trauma, not as a result of intrinsic wickedness. He has seen firsthand that when a child commits an act of violence, whether it’s part of gang activity, in self-defense, or in an accidental shooting like Sean’s, it can leave deep psychological scars. In part that’s because there’s so little sympathy for any child shooter. Even when it’s an accident, people feel, or need to feel, that there must be something inherently off about a kid who somehow got his hands on a gun. “Public opinion says, ‘I don’t care what your story is, why you did it — you did something wrong,’” he says. “‘Other kids aren’t out here having these kinds of accidents. That kids needs to be punished.’”
What’s worse, children don’t have the language to process what they have done. In an unintentional shooting like Sean’s, there’s nowhere for the child to place the blame, and no way to understand their grief as part of a larger story. “A lot of time with a trauma narrative, you need to establish a sense of meaning to that event,” Abdul-Adil says. For kids who have killed, this is nearly impossible. “How can you make positive meaning out of accidentally shooting someone who’s close to you and you care about, and society’s criticizing you for even being in this situation?”
That summer, as a debate broke out over Florida’s new law, Sean’s 911 call became public. The audio was played repeatedly on the local news and what was then a young CNN. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times both picked up the story of Florida’s grim week. People magazine wrote about the passage of the Berger’s law under a headline that read in part, “With a New Law, Florida Heeds a Child’s Plaintive Cry.” The child was Sean.
Reporters and strangers called the Smith’s home phone, and so they stopped answering. They stayed at Larry’s sister’s house for two days to avoid the press camped out on their lawn. Oprah replayed news footage of Larry and Sean coming out of their house around this time. A picture of the scene had been posted on the front page of The Miami Herald. Larry — his face red, hanging, and blank—pulls his son’s head into his torso and covers his face with his arms, bringing Sean in close, so photographers couldn’t get a good look.
You don’t have to get very far from the beach, and the tourists, and the lovely Art Deco hotels, for Florida to seem like the rest of the South, with its poverty and classicism and racial strife, albeit pastel-tinted. The Smiths live in Pembroke Pines now, just a few blocks from where they lived then. Their new and old homes, Erin’s elementary school, the hospital where they saw her body and the Methodist Church where they memorialized her, are connected by the perfect grid of numbered streets and wide, rundown boulevards that bind all the suburbs north and west of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.
Sean is now 36, tall and broad with salt-and-pepper hair and beard and a square, sad face. His voice is soft, and a little higher than you’d expect to come out of such a big guy. His mother, Lee, 63, is a petite, blonde woman with a deep tan and a sarcastic sense of humor. Larry declined to be interviewed — “He doesn’t want to bring up old feelings,” Sean tells me when we meet at the townhouse where Sean’s girlfriend lives. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he is putting away groceries.
Sean and Lee haven’t really talked much about what happened over the years, but when they do, they talk about how no one was to blame, but everyone felt guilty. None of the family members were charged with a crime. From the start, detectives said they were unlikely to bring a case. It wasn’t as if the gun had been lying around. Sean had been looking for his video games, which his mother had hidden from him that morning before school; the gun was what he’d found.
Sean didn’t return to school immediately after Erin died, save once, to say goodbye to his friends before summer break. In the fall, he returned for fifth grade. It was hard to know how to be, especially with the other kids whispering, Is that the kid who shot his sister? What made it worse, the biggest tragedy in his life had become a public service announcement to everyone else, because his 911 call was now part of the school’s gun safety curriculum. Lee kept him home from school on the day the lesson was given. Sean wound up hearing the call that following summer at day camp, during a gun safety lecture. He was sure the presenter was the same officer who’d responded to his 911. “I just lost it,” Sean recalls.
Sean’s mother remembers her daughter in idealized terms: as a talented artist, a singer in the church choir, a little girl so smart she could help her older brother with his homework. But Sean forgot all of that, consumed by the memories of the last minutes of his sister’s life. He’d see Erin dying in his lap, blood pouring out, her dying body giving off a few nervy jerks. He’d see that every day. And then he’d go to school, and try to listen in class and play with his friends. Therapy didn’t help. Visiting family far away from Florida, in Pennsylvania, did — for a while — but then that stopped. “For a long time,” Sean says, “I was self-destructive in every way imaginable.”
In 1994, the Smiths moved from the home where Erin had died and began building a new house in a suburb farther west. Until it was finished they lived in trailer park, where Sean started smoking pot. He’d also been suspended during his last year of middle school for fighting. “Sean wouldn’t join the pack, he would lead the pack,” his childhood best friend, Marcus Williams, says. “You couldn’t tell Sean what to do. I remember he was grounded for three weeks in high school, and at three o’clock in the morning, we were hanging out. Sean didn’t see tomorrow.”
A self-destructive streak is a common response to untreated childhood pain, says the University of Illinois’s Abdul-Adil, a way to cope. For some kids involved in violence, they might have what feels, internally, like some kind of justification for acting out. Sean had to relive the most traumatic event of his life, shooting a sister he loved, with no source of solace. “Why would I want to walk around with that being plastered on my brain every second?” Abdul-Adil says. “You think, ‘I’m going to drown myself first and get it over with.’”
By high school, Sean had moved on to LSD and cocaine. He went through his senior year twice, then left school without graduating. At their prom, Williams recalls, “Sean decided he was going to lock himself into a cabinet, and he was going to smoke [weed] until he couldn’t smoke any more. And he did.”
Sean knew what he was doing. “I felt like if something bad happened to me, I probably deserved it.”
This sense of blame was reinforced at home. In the years following Erin’s death, Sean’s relationship with Larry deteriorated until there was almost no relationship at all. Lee served as mediator, relaying messages between father and son. Often, Larry would avoid the family entirely, staying out late drinking at a local bar, stumbling home drunk. “That’s when it all would come out,” Lee says. “He didn’t know how — he still doesn’t know how to deal with it.”
Larry had been given the .38 Special by his father just a few weeks before. “He took it all apart and put it up in the closet and just forgot about it,” says Lee. But on the evening before Sean found it, Larry spotted someone trying to climb over their fence. So he took the gun out, just in case, to investigate the backyard. When he came back inside, he shoved it in the bottom of his top drawer instead of putting it away in the closet.
It would have been easy to blame himself for what happened next; instead, Larry blamed Sean. His interactions with his son veered from intense criticism to utter silence. “It may sound strange but if he yelled at me for any reason I felt a little better,” says Sean. “Even though he was yelling at me for something else, I was like, ‘Ok, maybe he’s getting some of that aggression out towards me.’ It was when he didn’t say anything and didn’t talk to me and didn’t look at me or anything,” that was the hardest.
Sean wonders how Erin might have grown up, how she might have looked. “Where would I be, where would she be, where would we all be?”
Sean’s self-blame calcified to the point where he understood his guilt in mechanical terms. He pulled the trigger, firing the bullet that killed his sister. If he hadn’t done it, she wouldn’t have died.
After high school Sean continued to use drugs and was busted more than once for petty theft. At nineteen, he got his girlfriend pregnant, and in 1999, his son, Dylan, was born. That caused Sean to straighten up, at least for a time. He found work as a warehouse manager, and watched Dylan reach the age that Erin was when she died, then pass the age Sean had been when he’d killed her.
He relapsed, more than once, and went through rehab. One counselor tried to get him to confront the death of his sister as the source of his problems. Sean resisted. “It always seemed like he brought it up to try to get me to cry,” he says. His marriage crumbled. Sean and Dylan’s mother are in the process of getting divorced and he is living back home with his parents. The one thing that has improved is his relationship with his father. They have actual conversations now. They are never about Erin.
Sean, though, does think about his sister. How Erin might have grown up, how she might have looked. “Where would I be, where would she be, where would we all be?” Maybe he would be a different person if he hadn’t shot his sister. On the other hand, the fact that he killed Erin also made him who he is. He can either hate himself or live with that fact.
A few years ago, Sean Googled his name to see how much he’d find out about his and Erin’s story. Realizing how easy it would be to learn the whole thing, he decided to be up front with the women he dates. One woman he met for coffee pressed for details. “She had the fucking balls to sit there, at Starbucks, and say, ‘Did you ever think you did it on purpose?’”
Sean recently got a tattoo. It reads “Erin,” with a halo. He says he’s found peace. “I know I’ve forgiven myself, and I’m pretty sure Erin’s forgiven me.”
Twenty-eight states have laws that make failure to properly store a gun a crime. A 2000 study found that among 15 of those states, there was an average 17 percent decline in unintentional gun deaths of children after the laws were enacted. Florida, which has the oldest and one of the strictest laws, experienced a 51 percent decline. Mostly, the laws act as deterrents, encouraging people to remember to put their guns away. Another study showed a 32 percent decline of nonfatal accidental shootings in states with child-access statutes.
When a child gets hold of a gun and shoots someone with it, there is a general reluctance to prosecute. Cases are pursued at the discretion of local law enforcement, whose operating assumption is usually that the family has suffered enough. Had his parents been prosecuted, Sean says, “It would have torn us apart.”
Still, it’s hard not to wonder whether treating an unintentional child shooting like a crime, and taking the case to court, might serve a purpose. Perhaps it would allow the victims closure, an endpoint on some of the suffering: There is a sentence. It is carried out. And then it is over. In a case like the Smith’s, there is no clear perpetrator, but a prosecution might have allowed them to be angry at the court system instead of themselves. Could that have been better than the endless, internal, combustible torture the Smiths have gone through?
I asked Lee if that might have helped — if anything would have. “Nothing but bringing her back,” was her answer.