Three years ago, Kym Worthy noticed a disturbing trend in Detroit, part of her jurisdiction as the prosecuting attorney of Wayne County, Michigan. In the span of about two years, accidental shootings left almost 20 children seriously injured or dead.
These incidents are not unique to Detroit. A child under 12 dies from a gun accident once a week on average, usually when he or she picks up an unsecured firearm, according to a new report from the Associated Press and USA Today. The same analysis found that deaths resulting from nearly identical sets of circumstances can lead to markedly different outcomes. In some cases, adults deemed negligent are prosecuted. In others, they are not.
Michigan is one of 23 states that doesn’t have a specific law allowing for criminal charges when an adult stores a gun in a way that a child could gain access to it or shoot someone with it. But Worthy has used other criminal statutes to hold adults — often parents — accountable. The AP and USA Today’s analysis found that her district hands out the most severe punishments for these shootings of any in the nation. At least seven adults in Wayne County have been put behind bars for accidental child shootings since 2014. One father received a 52-year sentence after his 10-year-old daughter, mimicking a video game, killed her 9-year-old brother with a shotgun left loaded and unattended.
Kym Worthy talked to Trace contributor Kerry Shaw about why her office aggressively prosecutes accidental child-shooting cases.
What compels you to prosecute adults in accidental child-shooting cases?
Well, it’s just common sense. I don’t mean to trivialize or marginalize other shootings in any way, but we can try to be proactive about children being hit in drive-bys, or by stray bullets, but those deaths may not be 100 percent preventable.
But not properly storing your weapon at home is just incredibly neglectful or irresponsible … I can’t even think of a strong enough word. You know children are in your home, and you don’t take the time to store a deadly weapon properly? That’s unconscionable. And I think there’s criminal liability.
In what kind of case do you feel it appropriate to bring charges?
I’m not talking about a parent or a gun owner who brings their weapon home, unloads it, locks it up, and the children find out where it is and try to get it.
I’m talking people who do not properly store their guns in their homes and cars; people who leave a loaded gun in their car console, in their glove box, knowing that they transport children all the time; people who leave a loaded gun under their bed, on top of their bed, or where they know children play every day. Those who show complete irresponsibility and, as a result, someone’s dead.
You know, I’m a parent of three children. I don’t have a gun in my home. But say I send my children across the street to play with the neighbor’s kids and they never come home again because they find an unsecured gun? I feel very strongly that it is a public health issue.
Was there a moment when you decided to treat these shootings like crimes instead of accidents?
We use our discretion in every case, and we make a decision based on the facts. But what we started to see was incident after incident after incident after incident. I asked my staff to do some research into these shootings. From 2015 through 2016, we had almost 20 in this category. They weren’t all deaths. Some were serious, life-changing injuries. But when you have almost 20 children who are either dead or seriously injured and their lives are forever changed because of this rank irresponsibility, that’s an epidemic.
And it’s not just happening here. Frankly, a lot of my colleagues across the state weren’t interested in what we were doing until accidental shootings started happening in their own jurisdictions. I don’t mean to call them out, I’m just saying: Until you see how it’s affecting the people you represent, you don’t really give it a lot of thought.
What’s your response to critics who say that grieving families are already suffering enough and shouldn’t be prosecuted?
Well, we hear that. But again, I’m not talking about those who take the time to do things properly. We had a case with a gun that was left on top of the Xbox console. It was in the same room where the children played video games, and it was visible every day. That is criminal.
Do you ever feel conflicted about whether you are doing the right thing or not?
This is the best way I can answer that question: I distinctly remember flipping channels years ago and landing on Dateline NBC. They did a series about children and guns. They showed parents who insisted that they’d educated their children about guns. They were sure their children would never touch a gun if they were in the same room as a gun, or if they found one.
The producers had these parents sit behind screens, watching their kids in a room. And then a gun was placed in the room. All of these children, who the parents had just insisted would never touch a gun, picked it up and starting playing with it. The allure was just palpable. I’ve never forgotten it.
It affected me personally because, not only do I have children, but I work within the largest county in Michigan. I am always looking for ways to keep the citizenry safe. And an obvious way is what we’re talking about.
What it’s like personally when you see a grieving parent? Or do you not see them in the courtroom?
I don’t see most of them, you’re correct. My assistants do. But it eats at you because you know this didn’t have to happen. I mean obviously, for all crime and all gun violence you can say, “this didn’t have to happen.” But you know 100 percent that these particular deaths don’t have to happen.
What could prevent accidental child shootings?
I would like to see Michigan have some form of safe storage law. I would like to see legislation passed here where it is a misdemeanor offense to unsafely store your weapon. I think laws would help in this situation, unlike some other types of crimes where I think that stiffer penalties would not deter violence.
I don’t think prosecutors who charge these cases should be seen as outliers. I want to live in a country where everybody thinks it’s outrageous, where everybody thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to charge people who are grossly irresponsible with their firearms if someone dies or gets seriously injured.
I don’t think children dying in this way should be polarizing. This isn’t a case where it’s the NRA versus people who don’t believe in gun ownership. This should be a unifying issue: we want all gun owners to be responsible.