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Accidental child shootings: Parents rarely prosecuted

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Map show accidental shooting prosecutions
An MPR News analysis of state court data shows prosecuting parents for leaving guns around kids is rare, but not unprecedented in Minnesota. Click here to see a county-by-county map.
MPR Map/Robert Boos

The case of an accidental shooting death of a 2-year-old boy is in the hands of the Hennepin County Attorney's office.

Authorities are considering what charges, if any, to bring against a Minneapolis father who they say left a loaded handgun within reach of his children. Police say the toddler was killed when his 4-year-old brother was playing with the gun.

These kinds of cases are tough calls for prosecutors, who say they often struggle to strike a balance between justice and compassion.

An MPR News analysis of state court data shows prosecuting parents for leaving guns around kids is rare, but not unprecedented in Minnesota. 

• Convictions by county

Since 2001, about 85 people in the state have been convicted of one of two potential charges in this kind of case. Both apply to adults who leave unsecured, loaded firearms within reach of a child. The more serious charge considers this an act of child endangerment or neglect, because it could "substantially harm" or lead to the death of the child.

About a third of all of these convictions were prosecuted in Hennepin County.

County Attorney Mike Freeman and his staff only see felony-level cases, which are punishable by up to five years in prison. These are the most unfortunate scenarios, in which the child suffers serious injuries or death.

Most of the defendants are parents experiencing a kind of anguish that goes beyond their worst nightmares, Freeman said.

"What more could a parent lose in life than the loss of a child," Freeman said. "But to lose your child because you were either negligent, or just plain stupid, by leaving a dangerous weapon nearby that they could access — I mean, I cannot imagine what you'd wake up to in the middle of the night."

Freeman said that was on his mind when he agonized over a case in Minneapolis during the 1990s.

"The father had a loaded handgun stored in a shoebox in the closet in the parents' bedroom," Freeman said. "The kids went up; they were playing. The older kid found the gun and shot and killed the little kid."

Freeman said his office decided to charge the father with an even more serious charge of second-degree manslaughter.

But the prosecutors also brokered a plea deal that Freeman describes as sympathetic. The father would not serve any jail time. Instead, Freeman recalls, the sentence required the man to perform about 100 hours of community service educating other families about the dangers of storing loaded handguns in their homes.

That decision came only after long hand-wringing discussions among Freeman and his staff. He said the deal was fair to the grief-stricken father.

"But it's also fair to society. What we most need to do is to convince people to be smart about how they handle guns," Freeman said.

Police say parents who own guns need to keep their firearms locked and unloaded, with the ammunition stored in a separate location. 

EVERY CASE IS DIFFERENT

Freeman cautioned that every case is different, and he declined to answer questions about the most recent case in Minneapolis. On Dec. 5, according to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office, 2-year-old Neejnco Xiong was accidentally shot by a semi-automatic handgun. The father, Kao Xiong, told police he kept the gun loaded and tucked behind a pillow in his bedroom, where his 4-year-old son found it. Xiong declined an interview request from MPR News.

And in 1997, a 6-year-old Warroad, Minn., boy was accidentally shot and killed when he and his 12-year-old sister were playing with their father's shotgun. The Roseau County Sheriff's Department decided not to file charges, saying the shooting was an accident.

A similar story unfolded this summer in St. Paul. A 2-year-old boy, Jacob Xiong, was accidentally shot in the head by his 9-year-old brother. The older brother found the gun in an unlocked drawer next to their parents' bed. The older boy pointed it at Jacob's head and pulled the trigger, thinking it was unloaded.

Unlike the Minneapolis case, the St. Paul story has a happier ending. Jacob Xiong survived and the family said he is now getting physical therapy. They expect him to make a full recovery.  

The father, Lue Xiong, pleaded guilty to negligent storage of a firearm, a gross misdemeanor. It's against the law in Minnesota to keep a loaded firearm where a child is likely to gain access to it.

A judge last week sentenced Xiong to two years of probation and ordered him to teach other parents about firearm safety. Xiong's attorney said his client plans to target his message to other Hmong-American community members.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he did not seek jail time, in part because the father was already paying a high price for his mistake.

"He'll be reminded of this for the rest of his life. The important thing here is that the behavior changes, and this doesn't happen again," Choi said. "But at the same time, I don't want to do further harm to this family."

Choi said he does not know how he would have approached the case if Jacob Xiong had died from his injuries. Either way, Choi says, these cases are always tragic and yet, preventable.

The charge to which Lue Xiong pleaded, negligent storage of a firearm, is a relatively uncommon charge in Minnesota. According to data provided by the state court administrator's office, about 50 defendants were convicted under the statute since 2001. They faced penalties of up to a year in confinement, but many did not serve time and were ordered to probation.

The child-endangerment charge is more rare, with about just more than 30 defendants convicted across the state over the same time period.

As recently as September, a similar incident prompted Hennepin County authorities to press charges under that statute against a Bloomington man when his 10-year-old daughter was accidentally shot in the neck. Witnesses told investigators that the girl was "playing" with one of her father's guns. The gun discharged when the dad, Wendell Letcher, 34, tried to get it away from her, according to the criminal complaint.

MPR could not reach Letcher for comment. The case is pending.

— Follow Laura Yuen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laura_yuen