Child gun deaths shake Louisiana communities

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, shown in this April 2013 photo, introduced legislation during the most recent legislative session aimed to make it a crime for Louisiana residents to keep unsecured guns in their homes.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, shown in this April 2013 photo, introduced legislation during the most recent legislative session aimed to make it a crime for Louisiana residents to keep unsecured guns in their homes.

In December, a 13-year-old Ascension Parish boy was shot in the head, and his 14-year-old friend was arrested for killing him inadvertently when playing with a stolen .38 after smoking marijuana.

Within the month, three other similar shootings shook Baton Rouge — an alarming enough trend to prompt the district attorney and coroner there to issue a public health alert.

In New Orleans last Sunday, 5-year-old Brandajah Smith’s mother locked her alone in the house. Police say the kindergartner found a .38-caliber revolver stashed under a pillow, put it to her forehead and pulled the trigger.

The grim stories are not anomalies. The rate at which children are inadvertently shot to death in Louisiana is three times the American average. Between 2007 and 2011, at least 89 kids in Louisiana were killed in what is classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the accidental discharge of weapons.

“Often times these shootings are referred to as accidental shootings. This is not correct. These are not accidents,” Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III and Coroner William “Beau” Clark wrote in their joint statement. “They are foreseeable injuries and deaths that can occur whenever the adult owners of these firearms leave them unsecured where children and young adults can access them.”

They implored all parents to secure their weapons and supervise their children.

But addressing the matter of such shootings is both politically and judicially a more confounding scenario than murder. Louisiana, with perhaps the most liberal gun laws in the nation, has killed legislative efforts to legally mandate that its citizens keep guns away from kids. During the past Legislative session, a bill requiring guns to be stored in a safe or equipped with trigger locks died without fanfare in a House committee.

And in New Orleans, the conversation last week turned once again to the point at which parental recklessness becomes murder.

Brandajah’s mother, a 28-year-old convicted thief and prostitute named Laderika Smith, was booked with second-degree murder. Police and prosecutors believe that she was so grossly negligent in leaving her child alone with a loaded gun that she should face a charge punishable by an automatic life sentence. Others believe that’s a stretch, motivated by a knee-jerk desire to find someone to blame.

The accidental shootings of children is not a tragedy reserved for the untrained or the irresponsible; more than once in recent years, the child of a law enforcement officer has died the same way.

“I still blame myself for it every day,” said Ronnie Newman, a St. Charles Parish sheriff’s deputy whose 3-year-old son, Christian, found his loaded gun under the bed in 2006, and shot himself in the forehead. “I still second-guess what I could have done differently that day — what if I’d placed it here, or put it there instead.”

He’d put the boy in bed and left the room to give his 5-year-old brother a bath. He heard a gunshot from the bedroom.

No criminal charges were ever filed. Investigators determined that the child crawled underneath the bed, found the loaded gun and somehow pulled the trigger. It was simply an accident, an unspeakable horror.

Seven years later, Newman still struggles to look at pictures of the child, a tough little boy with a raspy voice, whom the family called Cookie. He would have turned 11 this August.

“I wish I could just see what he would look like now, what kind of sports he would play, what kind of person he would be,” Newman said.

Ideological debate

There is one thing everyone agrees on: Too many children are killed by accidental gunfire in Louisiana. But what causes it — and how to stop it — cleaves along the ideological lines that stifle nearly every debate about gun violence.

Child safety and public health groups say the only way to prevent such deaths is to keep kids away from guns, and advocate for the sort of laws that the Legislature this year abandoned. Republican lawmakers and the Louisiana Shooting Association, which opposed the law as an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms, say parental responsibility and familiarizing children with guns is the way to avoid such tragedy.

“Whether the law should control it is a matter to be determined by our Legislature. That’s who we hire to make these decisions for us, and so far they haven’t gone in that direction,” said Raymond Diamond, a professor at LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center and an expert in the Second Amendment. “In the end, if the law doesn’t control this situation, then personal responsibility must.”

The Legislature has emphatically opted for the latter approach. In the session that ended earlier this month, the gun debate focused on how to expand Second Amendment rights in the state.

A year earlier, lawmakers proposed — and voters then approved — a constitutional amendment that made gun ownership a “fundamental right,” meaning laws that could curtail it must receive the same level of judicial scrutiny as laws infringing on free speech and freedom of religion.

In that environment, the few proposals that would place new requirements on gun owners were considered non-starters even before lawmakers convened in Baton Rouge. That was particularly true of House Bill 4 by Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, which aimed to make it a crime for residents to keep unsecured guns in the home.

Inspired by children hurt or killed after coming across firearms, Norton said more regulation was the only way to prevent needless tragedies.

Louisiana has the nation’s second-highest rate of total childhood gun deaths, after Alaska. In 10 years, more than 1,000 children were killed by bullets in the state: 739 were murdered, 224 committed suicide and 89 killed when a gun fired by accident.

“I was hoping and praying that other legislators would look at our situation here in Louisiana and they would understand the responsibility was on us to make sure we were taking care of our citizens and our children,” she said.

Gun control and public health advocates blame Louisiana’s proliferation of guns and the lax laws regulating them for the state’s high rate of children killed by gunfire.

The American Academy of Pediatrics submitted a report at a congressional hearing in February, in the wake of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.

The organization, an alliance of pediatricians, noted that 55 American children are gunned down each week. Gunfire is one of the top three causes of death for children — killing twice as many as cancer.

The organization called for states to enact the sort of legislation that Norton proposed, requiring gun owners to store firearms safely. Twenty-eight states already have such laws on the books.

Catherine Taylor, a professor at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, acknowledges that it’s a controversial recommendation, particularly in a state that is so protective of its right to bear arms.

“But the data is the data,” she said. “Having a gun in the house greatly raises that risk of homicide, suicide and accident. If it’s there, if there’s access, you’re leaving open the door for that fatality to happen.”

Norton’s proposed bill would have required that guns be kept in a secured container, protected by a trigger lock or otherwise rendered inoperable by unauthorized users. Fines starting at $300 would have been imposed on those found in violation.

The measure never made it out of committee, failing on a 6-7 vote. A raft of pro-gun bills, meanwhile, sailed through.

Norton’s take: “People were more concerned about their guns than their children.”

But gun-rights advocates argued that her bill undercut the fundamental right guaranteed by the Second Amendment — the ability to protect one’s family if a sudden danger presented itself.

“To suggest that every law-abiding citizen should have their gun locked up in one room and their bullets in another, that’s not going to be much of a deterrent unless you have a very patient burglar,” Rep. Jeff Thompson, founder of the pro-gun rights Defend Louisiana campaign.

The issue of gun safety, he said, falls on parents, not lawmakers.

“I have a problem with the nanny state. I think people should have common sense,” said Dan Zelenka, an attorney and president of the Louisiana Shooting Association. By the time his daughter was 4, he said, she was so attuned to the dangers of firearms that she’d reprimand him if he left a gun unattended.

“If you are so irresponsible as to leave a firearm somewhere that a 5-year-old can get to it, I sincerely doubt that you’re going to pay attention to the law.”

Thompson, too, said he doesn’t worry about his children fooling around with weapons, because they’ve been trained to use guns and understand the danger. That respect is the key to gun safety, Thompson said, and the lawmaker said he would propose legislation next year requiring schools to teach children not to play with guns.

For her part, Norton said she will make another attempt to pass her bill next year. Acknowledging that she would again face an uphill battle, Norton said she did not expect a different outcome but felt she had to try.

“When I think of all the incidents that have happened with our children in this country, it’s important to not just sit back and say this is another tragedy,” Norton said. “This is another life that has been lost.”

A tough call

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro doesn’t consider Brandajah’s death the result of an innocent accident. Laderika Smith was booked with cruelty to a juvenile and second-degree murder, and she faces an automatic life sentence if she’s found guilty as charged.

Second-degree murder in Louisiana requires either specific intent, or that the killing occurred while the perpetrator was engaged in another violent act, such as armed robbery or rape.

Police and prosecutors cited the initial charge — cruelty to a juvenile — as the second violent crime that justifies the murder charge.

A New Orleans court has, at least once before, considered a similar question.

Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich last year acquitted a man charged with murder in a similar accidental shooting. Tyrone Brown was babysitting 3-year-old Brashaun Blue in 2010 when the child found a Glock handgun stuffed in the cushion of a living room couch. He shot himself in the face as Brown slept.

Cannizzaro prosecuted him for second-degree murder.

Zibilich found Brown not guilty. He called the child’s death a tragedy, perhaps an act of negligence, but not one that rose to the level of a homicide.

“These are awfully tough calls to have to make,” said David Katner, a Tulane University Law School professor.

On one hand, he said, the mother is already enduring the greatest tragedy that can befall a parent. On the other, parents have a duty to keep their children safe. Katner has five children of his own, the youngest of them 6 years old. He cannot imagine leaving his kids alone in a house, with or without a loaded gun.

“This won’t be the first time and it certainly won’t be the last time that a parent left a child unattended,” he said. “Parents do this thousands of times in the city of New Orleans on any given day, without envisioning a horrific consequence like this.”

Newman, the St. Charles deputy, said that whenever he reads about a baby dying by an accidental bullet, his heart breaks for their parents. He’s been there, he says. He knows what it means to mourn -— every holiday, every birthday, every trip to the cemetery — and blame yourself in part for their absence.

Advocate staff writers Jeff Adelson and Ryan Broussard contributed to this report.