Placeholder Image

On February 12, Arizona high school student Dorothy Dutiel (left) fatally shot May Kieu (right) before committing suicide.


It’s Easy for Most American Kids to Get a Gun — Even If Their Parents Believe Otherwise

A murder-suicide rocks an Arizona high school, and illustrates what research has found about children’s access to deadly weapons.

Just before classes began on February 12 at Independence High School in Glendale, Arizona, 15-year-old Dorothy Dutiel shot and killed her girlfriend and fellow sophomore, Mary Kieu. Dutiel then turned the gun on herself. The girls’ bodies were discovered near the school cafeteria with a suicide note. One student told reporters that the couple was “about to break up.”

The weapon used in the crime was procured from a familiar source: a child’s home. The day before the shooting, Dutiel reportedly asked to borrow a handgun from a boy in her class. She said she needed it for protection, and promised to return it the next day. The classmate, whom police have not identified, granted Dutiel’s request by plucking a firearm from his house. News reports have not revealed how the gun was stored, or if the boy’s parents or guardians possessed it legally. But the incident corroborates research showing that a majority of kids living in gun-owning households know where weapons are stored and even how to access them — sometimes without their parents’ knowledge.

That’s the conclusion of a 2006 study conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health and San Francisco General Hospital. Researchers surveyed 201 gun-owning parents at a pediatric medical practice in rural Alabama and found that 70 percent of respondents believed their children were aware of where guns were stored in their home; the remaining 30 percent believed their kids were unaware of the whereabouts of the family guns. But when the adults’ 5- to 14-year-old children were asked the same questions, the researchers received conflicting accounts. Among the children of parents reporting that their guns were safely hidden, nearly four in 10 reported that they in fact knew where to find them. 

The incongruities persisted when researchers asked parents and children about whether they had ever handled the family’s gun or guns. Nearly a quarter of the parents who reported that their children had never touched a household firearm were informed that their kids had, in fact, not just located one, but had their hands on it at some point.

Additional research suggests that a minor’s ease of access to a firearm increases as they enter their teen years. A 2006 analysis conducted by Harvard researchers found that parents of kids aged 13 to 17 were slightly more likely to store their guns loaded, unlocked, or both, than people with younger children.

The Harvard authors cited a 2003 survey of gun-owning parents that asked respondents to predict their child’s reaction upon finding a firearm. Fifty-two percent believed their child was “too smart” to pick up a found weapon. The researchers concluded that overestimating the “developmental levels and impulse control” of kids may “effectively relieve adults of responsibility and place the burden on children to protect themselves.” Children, and teenagers, “aren’t as good at estimating risks as adults,” Paul Hirschfield, a sociologist at Rutgers, told The Trace last fall. The prefrontal cortex, which governs the ability to temper impulses and weigh risk and consequences, doesn’t fully develop until age 25.

In Arizona, sympathy for both girls has poured in from classmates on social media, though not, by one measure, in equal quantities. In the days since the shooting, a GoFundMe page asking for donations to cover Mary Kieu’s funeral has raised more than $20,000. A similar campaign for Dutiel — who tweeted “Who else is ready to shoot themselves?” on December 9 — has raised just $4,102.

[Photo: Instagram]