SALT LAKE CITY — Just home from fixing a fence on his four-wheeler in their rural home in northern Utah, the man set his rifle against a wall in a living room cluttered with children’s toys. He went to the bathroom while his wife was in the kitchen with the youngest of their three children. Their other two small children were in the living room.
Then they heard a loud boom.
They raced in to find their round-faced, 2-year-old boy lying on his back crying, a gunshot wound near his belly. Wearing only a green diaper after his bath, the dying boy looked up at his mom and told her his sister had shot him.
The couple’s 3-year-old daughter had grabbed the rifle and accidentally shot her little brother while pretending she was shooting bears, according to a police report obtained by The Associated Press. The boy who loved riding tractors and horses died that night at an area hospital.
The April 2014 incident in Wellsville, Utah, is one of one of five fatal accidental shootings involving minors in the state over a recent 2 ½ year span, according to an analysis by The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network. There were 14 total incidents in that span.
Using information collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonpartisan research group, news reports and public sources, the media outlets spent six months analyzing the circumstances of every death and injury from accidental shootings involving children ages 17 and younger from Jan. 1, 2014, to June 30 of this year — more than 1,000 incidents in all.
Nationwide, a total of 327 minors were killed in that span.
Utah’s rate of 4.7 accidental shootings involving minors per 1 million people is higher than the national average and among the 20 highest in the country, the analysis found. The national rate is 3.4.
The Utah incident involving the toddler siblings shares a common trait found around the country in accidental shootings: 3-year-olds are the most common shooters and victims among young children.
The Utah parents weren’t charged in what the investigator deemed a horrible tragedy. But Cache County Sheriff Lt. Mike Peterson said the incident is a stark reminder of the importance keeping weapons and ammunition away from curious children.
“We have to remember that those little guys are inquisitive,” Peterson said. “The child who pulled the trigger was just emulating what she had seen dad do.”
Accidental shootings account for only a fraction of firearm deaths in the U.S., but gun safety advocates have long argued that they are largely preventable. They advocate for stricter laws requiring guns to be kept locked up and unloaded.
Gun rights supporters, though, argue those measures make guns less useful in emergencies. The National Rifle Association argues that the chance of a child dying in a firearms accident is “one in one million.”
Mirroring a national trend, most of Utah’s shootings occurred in homes. They happened all around the state, including in Ogden, Green River, Cottonwood Heights and Richfield. West Valley City was the only city with two.
One of the other fatal shootings also involved siblings. A 12-year-old girl was killed when her younger sister accidentally shot her in their home in Kaysville in November 2014.
Earlier that year in June in Cottonwood Heights, a 17-year-old was shot in the head by a 16-year-old friend who thought the handgun was unloaded.
The incidents analyzed by the AP and USA TODAY Network don’t include an incident last month in Logan when a baby boy was taken to the hospital with flesh wounds in his foot after his 3-year-old brother fired a hunting rifle he found inside the family’s apartment.
In the northern Utah incident, the mother told investigators her husband commonly left his rifle by the gun safe until he needed it again in the morning for work. She said the kids had never played with it before.
Peterson said they encourage families to always keep weapons out of reach from children, preferably in a locked storage, and put ammunition in a different spot.
“We live in an area where guns are quite prevalent,” Peterson said. “In this case, it wasn’t a shock to have a weapon. It just becomes such a way of our routine and our life that we forget it only takes one unfortunate thing to happen and it can turn to tragedy.”