In Putnam County, Florida on Tuesday, a 4-year-old boy sitting in the backseat of a car managed to get hold of his mother’s loaded .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun and shoot her with it. The bullet ripped through the driver’s seat and traveled through the abdomen of 31-year-old Jamie Gilt before exiting her torso. A sheriff’s deputy came upon the injured Gilt in her truck, which was found partially blocking a roadway in the town of Palatka. He told a local news broadcast that her son was crying uncontrollably at the scene. It is a misdemeanor in Florida to leave a loaded weapon accessible to a child, and detectives are trying to determine if the firearm was securely stored.
Gilt, who will survive her injuries, is a gun-rights advocate who asserts her Second Amendment views on her Facebook page. The day before the unintentional shooting, she wrote, “If someone breaks into my house, or tries to harm me or my family pretty much anywhere, they will be shot and most likely killed.”
Shots fired at mothers and fathers by sons and daughters are as much a part of the history of gun ownership as Davy Crockett or the Minutemen.
For the growing number of Americans with permits to carry concealed firearms, feeling protected “pretty much anywhere” often involves toting their handguns in their cars as they go about their routines. Target shooters and range regulars, meanwhile, have to drive their rifles to their practice spots before blasting away. Whatever the reason for having a gun in a vehicle, it can become a safe storage gray zone.
Jonathan M. Metzl is the director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. He notes that safety measures like mandatory airbags and seatbelt requirements have made American car travel steadily less deadly for drivers and passengers, and wonders whether the rise of concealed carry has created new risks that erode some of those advances.
“It’s ironic to me that there are all of these common-sense laws surrounding car safety, but that’s not the case when it comes to the storage of firearms in cars,” he says. “Because people are so worried about needing constant access to their firearms, the situation we’re creating is far more dangerous than the threat of being attacked by a stranger.”
That danger may be most acute when a car with a gun in it is also ferrying a curious child. Reviewing media reports covering the past six months, The Trace found at least 10 instances of children under the age of 13 accessing unsecured guns in cars and shooting themselves, family members or other children. The incidents span the country but form a familiar pattern, as the following examples illustrate:
- On February 29, 3-year-old Gavin Pittman found a gun in his family’s minivan, which was parked outside their home in Apison, Tennessee, and fatally shot himself in the head. His mother was charged with child endangerment and criminally negligent homicide.
- On February 20, while helping his mother clean the family’s sport utility vehicle, a 3-year-old boy in Kentwood, Michigan, shot her in the head with a 9mm handgun that his father left on the front seat.
- On January 25, a 7-year-old boy sitting alone in a car with his three siblings died after his 8-year-old brother found a loaded semi-automatic pistol inside their mother’s purse and shot him in the head.
- On January 4, 2-year-old Ethan Walker located a holstered .32-caliber Kel-Tec handgun in a pocket on the driver’s side door of his grandfather’s truck and fatally shot himself in the face. The same day in Trinidad, Colorado, a 9-year-old boy was shot after he and his 8-year-old brother found a loaded gun in their family’s parked car. He was removed from life support six days later. A nearby gas station employee had been tasked with supervising the boys while their parents were at a doctor’s appointment.
- On October 18, a 2-year-old boy in Rock Hill, South Carolina, grabbed his great aunt’s .357 revolver from a pouch behind the front passenger seat of her Chevy Camaro and shot his grandmother. The gun’s owner, 24-year-old Daisha Adawn Ervin, a Department of Corrections employee, was charged with unlawfully carrying a handgun. “It was an honest mistake,” she told the judge. “I am not the person the media has portrayed at all.”
The safety precautions that govern gun safety and storage at home “don’t seem to apply in cars,” says Metzl, who is also research director at the Safe Tennessee Project. One reason for the blind spot, he theorizes, could be that cars are a method of transport that people don’t imagine they’ll be sitting in long enough to necessitate safe storage.
Except for when the destination bars guns on its property, in which case a firearm left behind in the car can become a target for the illegal gun market. “The number one spot where handguns are stolen from is from vehicles,” Steven Fuller, social media marketer for Jotto, an Arkansas-based company that makes vehicle docking and mounting stations for handguns, says. Jotto markets a biometric handgun holster that allows gun owners to enter a fingerprint and quickly unlock their weapon.
“I feel like people have a false sense of security” when it comes to toting valuables in their vehicles, he adds.
Metzl believes that the safety measures that 11 states mandate for firearm storage at home should be applied to cars: “Keep them locked up, keep them away from children, [with] safety locks.”
“It seems to me incredibly unfortunate that we’re seeing more stories like this one in Florida,” he says. “This is an issue that really needs to be addressed.”