In Louisiana, heartbreaking reality when children accidentally shoot themselves

Bryn Stole

The Advocate

A 6-year-old boy playing at home in a bustling Baton Rouge apartment complex recently got hold of a gun and fired a round into the face of his 3-year-old sister.

The girl survived after her mother sped her to the hospital, where she was rushed into surgery. Baton Rouge police, meanwhile, arrived at the apartment to find the weapon gone — spirited away, detectives suspect, by a relative who left after the shooting and is still wanted for questioning.

In a state where shootings occur with horrifying frequency, incidents like this are among the most heartbreaking and vexing, as they involve triggers squeezed by curious children who don’t understand what they’re doing.

Although Baton Rouge police say an arrest may still come in this particular case, prosecutors and legal experts say these shootings are among the most confounding.

The decision to press charges against grieving relatives, the most likely owners of the weapons, can be agonizing, prosecutors say. And even when police and district attorneys go forward with a criminal case, a mixture of permissive Louisiana gun laws and jurors’ sympathy for heartbroken defendants make gaining convictions extremely challenging.

“The parent just lost a child — am I going to put them in jail? And is a jury going to convict them?” asked Hillar Moore III, the East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney. “That’s a tough one.”

But Moore’s sympathy is tempered with frustration: “These are 100 percent preventable.”

Frequently, Moore said, the weapons disappear before police arrive. Even when a gun is recovered, he said, it’s often difficult to figure out how the child got a hold of the weapon.

The May 14 shooting of the 3-year-old girl is among a steady stream of unintentional shootings involving children in Louisiana, which has the third highest rate of accidental child shooting deaths in the country over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Saturday, Haley Moore, a 5-year-old girl in LaPlace, shot herself to death while playing with a handgun.

A month ago in Natchitoches, 3-year-old Za’veon Amari Williams came across a handgun and shot himself in the head.

Since October, at least five Baton Rouge teenagers have died after being shot unintentionally by friends or relatives playing with weapons. Baton Rouge police arrested shooters in each of those cases on counts of negligent homicide.

But in shooting deaths like Za’veon’s, where the hands reaching for the gun are still tiny, prosecutors have struggled to decide if — or how — to hold adults responsible. Following Za’veon’s death, Natchitoches police arrested 22-year-old Alverious Demars, who police suspect in hiding the gun, on counts of negligent homicide and obstruction of justice.

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