Watchdog: Unsecured guns killed 20 MI kids, teens in 15 months

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Michigan watchdog agency is sounding the alarm about an apparent increase in child deaths due to unsecured guns in homes.

The Office of Children’s Ombudsman tells News 8 it received 20 child death notifications related to unsecured firearms from June 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021.

The ombudsman’s office is mandated by state law to review deaths of children who have had recent contact with Child Protective Services.

The OCO compiled the number of unsecured gun deaths during its review of an accidental shooting that killed an 8-year-old girl in Detroit in October 2020.

In that case, police said three siblings under age 10 were home alone when a gun discharged, killing the 8-year-old.

OMBUDSMAN CALLS FOR MORE GUN SAFETY RESOURCES

“The objective of this review was to identify areas for improvement in the child welfare system,” wrote OCO Chief Investigator Tobin Miller in his report on the Detroit child’s death.

Miller determined Wayne County CPS caseworkers followed policy in their interactions with the 8-year-old’s family prior to her death.

But the ombudsman went on to use the opportunity to address the disturbing number of deaths involving minors who accessed unsecured firearms.  

“The OCO recommends that MDHHS (which oversees CPS) develop a plan to provide free resources or for the department to purchase resources to help families secure firearms,” Suzanna Shkreli, the director of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, wrote in a report. “For example, an MDHHS plan could task local DHHS offices with identifying sources of free trigger locks and lock boxes in their communities so that CPS clients may be referred to those sources.”

Shkreli also urged the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to develop a gun safety flyer for CPS workers to share with families, suggesting the state could base its pamphlet on guidance provided by Mott’s Children’s Hospital.

The state health department agreed with the ombudsman’s recommendations and said it plans to create a webpage with information on how to find free gun safety devices in each of Michigan’s 83 counties.  

CHILD GUN DEATH CAUSES

The original ombudsman’s report documented eleven child death notifications over an 11-month period ending in April 2021.

It wasn’t until News 8 asked the ombudsman’s office to check notifications since April 2021 that the OCO found a total of 20 death alerts over 15 months.

MDHHS responded to News 8’s initial inquiry about the 11 deaths and said it’s only aware of ten in that time frame.   

“We have records of 10 deaths involving unsecured guns during (the original 11-month time period),” wrote Bob Wheaton, MDHHS Public Information Officer, in an email to News 8.

He said they all happened in the lower peninsula and include: four suicides, five playing with unsecured handguns and one shot by unknown assailant. He said seven involved males and three involved females, and the ages ranged from 5 to 17.

“Typically, in a year we get approximately 300 to 350 child deaths reported to our CPS hotline,” wrote Wheaton.

He went on to note the state in 2019 “developed a robust plan to reduce child fatalities in the state of Michigan that result from abuse, neglect, or suicide…”

Wheaton also wrote of MDHHS’s use of grant funds to develop suicide prevention resources, which included an assessment tool for suicide risk among youth coming into foster care and two statewide suicide prevention conferences, among other efforts.

BILL WOULD CRIMINALIZE UNSECURED GUNS AROUD CHILDREN

Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting praised the efforts of OCO.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to see it, right?” said Getting in a Zoom interview with News 8. “Because it speaks to what we’ve been saying. There is a problem here that we need to address.”

Getting has been speaking out about the threat posed to children by adults who fail to safely store firearms.

While he appreciated the efforts of the ombudsman and MDHHS, he says it’s not enough.

Getting is pushing lawmakers to pass a bill that would criminalize the unsafe storage of guns in homes with minors.

House Bill 5066 would make it a misdemeanor to fail to secure firearms around children and a five-year felony if a minor gets hold of an unsecured firearm and causes injury or death.

The bill has been sitting in the Committee on Military, Veterans and Homeland Security since its introduction in June.

“Let’s have a hearing on it. Let’s bring it to a vote,” Getting said. “These are reasonable actions that don’t interfere with a person’s right to own a firearm. No one is talking about that.”

20 STATES HAVE CHILD ACCESS LAWS, MICHIGAN DOESN’T

According to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, twenty states already have so-called Child Access Prevention laws.

Michigan, which has no CAP law, currently earns a grade of “C” on Giffords’ annual gun law scorecard.

As it stands, Michigan prosecutors try to use other laws to hold gun owners accountable when minors obtain unsecured firearms and cause injury or death.

“What we need is a specific statute that governs this area of the law because right now it’s a crack in the system and we should not be allowing kids to fall through those cracks,” said Getting.

KZOO STILL INVESTIGATING SHOOTING DEATH OF CHILD, 9

Getting said Kalamazoo Public Safety is still investigating the June shooting death of 9-year-old Carl Atkins at his Kalamazoo home.

Police say Atkins was home alone with two other siblings at the time.  

“That investigation has been made more difficult by a lack of cooperation from the victim’s family,” said Getting.

Getting confirmed Atkins’ mom did make admissions in family court regarding the poor conditions in which the children were living.

In the death of the 8-year-old girl in Detroit, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office told News 8 police did seek a warrant based on the gun’s unsafe storage in the home.

But the prosecutor sent the case back to police requesting further investigation, and that’s where it currently stands.

Everytown for Gun Safety reported unintentional shooting deaths by children increased by one-third in 2020 compared to the same time frame in 2019.

The advocacy group noted millions of children were at home due to the pandemic shutdown at the same time gun sales hit record highs.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote by Suzanna Shkreli to another state official. We regret the error, which has been fixed.

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