'It's very preventable': Minnesotans bemoan kids' unintentional shooting deaths

people release balloons in the sky
Family and friends of 12-year-old Markee Jones, who was shot and killed on Saturday morning, release balloons in honor of Jones during a vigil at his grandmother's house in St. Paul on Aug. 6.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Nearly every day in the U.S., a child picks up a gun and unintentionally shoots themselves, or someone else, according to research by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

That’s what happened early in the morning on Aug. 5 in St. Paul. Markee Jones, 12, was at his grandma’s house — where he had celebrated a cousin’s birthday — when he was shot and killed by a 14-year-old who found a loaded gun someone had left behind.

“He always brought out positivity of anything. If anyone was mad, he would bring out the light to that,” said his cousin, Chyarm Hill, at a vigil the following day.

“And it’s going to really hurt just not seeing him at my grandmother’s house anymore,” she said, choking up. “To all of my cousins, all of us. Because my grandmother’s house was a safe house. And him just not being there, it’s not going to feel the same."

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St. Paul police are still investigating the incident, which the family has said was an accident. The family has asked whoever left the gun in the home to turn themselves in.

Just three days after Jones’ death, a 3-year-old boy in Hinckley found a loaded pistol in his father’s bedroom. He shot himself in the head and died less than three weeks before his birthday.

He was “a bright, cheerful, strong-willed and determined kid. He loved to smile and laugh at almost everything,” according to an online obituary.

His father was arrested on two counts of second-degree manslaughter, along with additional felony counts of child endangerment and negligent storage of firearms.

“When we think about toddlers getting their hands on guns, it’s tragic, but it’s very preventable,” said Nichole Michaels, a researcher in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

She recently led a study that examined firearms deaths over the past 10 years in which a child younger than 15 unintentionally shot and killed themselves or another child.

In 90 percent of cases that Michaels examined, the guns were stored loaded and unlocked.

“They’re getting the guns from home,” she said. “Often the guns belong to a parent or other family member. And so really, it's tragic. For the whole family as well as the community.”

Michaels also found that about 9 out of 10 victims were boys. And many were incredibly young. More than 40 percent were between the ages of 2 and 4. Some of the shooters were as young as two.

“I think that one of the misperceptions that parents have is that their 3-year-old or their 5-year-old is too young to pick up the firearm, will not have the strength to pull the trigger,” said Maya Haasz, a pediatric emergency physician in Denver and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. “And that is just incorrect. And that’s why tragedies like this keep happening.”

Tip of the iceberg

In Minnesota, according to the most recent data from the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention, 82 people died due to firearms accidents between 2001 and 2021. Nine of those killed were children.

Last year a 12-year-old unintentionally shot and killed his 10-year-old brother in Minneapolis after finding his father’s loaded gun under a pillow.

In 2021, three kids in the state were shot and killed by other children: a 6-year-old in Moorhead, Minn., a 5-year-old in Brooklyn Park and a 3-year old in Bena, in Cass County in north-central Minnesota.

And those deaths don’t tell the complete story of the unintentional harm to children caused by firearms.

“It’s really just the tip of the iceberg,” said Haasz. In 2019, she noted, there were 100 deaths nationwide and almost 1,900 injuries.

“And so when we hear about a death, that’s really the tragedy that comes out in the news, but for every death, 18 children are shot and injured or injured accidentally,” Haasz said.

Data from 2021 shows that about 30 million children in the U.S. live in a home with firearms. About 15 percent of those kids live in homes where guns are stored unsafely.

“And so that means that there are nearly 5 million children in the United States that have easy access to a loaded firearm,” said Haasz.

That’s why Jamie Becker-Finn, a DFL state representative from Roseville, refuses to call these tragedies “accidents.”

“Because the reality is, accident makes it sound like it was not preventable. Like, nobody was at fault. And the reality is that the people who are not securing their guns are at fault,” said Becker-Finn.

It’s illegal in Minnesota to negligently have a loaded, unlocked gun within a child’s reach. About half the states have similar laws.

But Becker-Finn said there’s not enough prescriptive detail in the state’s firearms storage law, which is focused only on children.

She introduced a bill last session to specifically require gun owners to store their firearms unloaded, locked and separate from ammunition.

“The overall goal with the bill was, one, the status quo isn’t working, we still have kids killed every year. And two, we need to be having this conversation more publicly because it clearly needs to be had. And there are too many adults who own firearms and aren’t storing them properly. And kids are the ones who are suffering,” she said.

The bill didn’t pass. It faced opposition from more than two dozen rural county sheriffs, who argued it infringed on gun owners’ rights, and wouldn’t do anything to prevent additional tragedies.

“There’s going to be no enforcement on it,” said Crow Wing County Sheriff Eric Klang. “And the only time that there will be enforcement is if a tragedy happens. And then of course, it’s already too late.”

Several sheriffs, including Klang, also argued the change would make it more difficult for people to defend themselves in case of a home invasion.

“For them to have to go and grab their firearm, to get it unlocked, to load it, find ammunition. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” said Klang.

Pediatrician Maya Haasz said policies are important to encourage safe storage policies. But she said it's more important that parents take action to store their guns safely.

Even though gun ownership has increased substantially over the past few years, Haasz said the percentage of people who are safely storing their firearms so that children can’t access them is also increasing.

But that’s little consolation to the family of Markee Jones.

“Please put the guns down. It’s not worth it,” said Kemontae Richards, Jones’ cousin, after Jones’ death earlier this month.

“I feel like adults should take accountability for their firearms. Be responsible with it. Lock it up so kids won’t be able to touch it.”

MPR News intern Aaliyah Demry contributed to this story.