It had been a fun day — cousins playing in the snow in Birchwood, throwing snowballs, being young. Then things went wrong. The three boys started talking about guns, and one wanted to show his weapon off. He thought it had blanks in it. He pulled the trigger. Suddenly another cousin was bleeding, shot in the stomach. The boy, 15-year-old Nathan Ware, died later that night at the hospital. Hamilton County sheriff’s deputies and the county medical examiner ruled the January death accidental — the first in the county for 1996. But likely not the last. On average, Hamilton County officials see three accidental shooting deaths each year. In rural counties, the average annual number of accidental shooting deaths varies from about 1 to 2. Tennessee’s statewide annual average is 64. Georgia and Alabama have similar numbers. Another accidental fatality occurred this weekend when a Hamilton County teen-ager died while playing Russian roulette with a revolver at his mother’s home in Athens. Police say 16-year-old Clark Warner of Hixson accidentally shot himself in the head while joking around. The case is still under investigation. Accidental shooting injuries are far more common, of course. A federal government report estimates 105 injuries for each death. “Nathan was used to guns,” said his mother, Carol Hilliard, on the evening of her son’s funeral. “He’d taken a hunter safety course. His dad gave him a gun for Christmas.” Though it wasn’t Nathan’s gun that killed him, Mrs. Ware said the family’s loss has brought them mixed feelings about having guns around. “People have to protect themselves some way,” Mrs. Hilliard said. “But I’ve got a 13-year-old son, too. And he wants the gun Nathan got for Christmas out of the house,” she said. “He says a gun killed his brother and he wants it gone. So I guess it will be out of there. I don’t like guns either. I never have.” Shootings aren’t the bulk of accidental deaths, of course. On average, 81 people a year die accidentally in Hamilton County. Most die from injuries received in automobile accidents and house fires, according to local officials. But shootings still take their toll. Every day, 15 American children are killed with guns. And four or five of those youngsters are killed accidentally, according to numbers compiled by National Center for Health Statistics. Linda Cowan, the Hamilton County sheriff’s investigator who worked the Birchwood case, says these incidents are always tragic. “One shooting, whether accidental or intentional, is unnecessary and should have been — could have been — prevented. We have to acknowledge that and work to eliminate them.” Ms. Cowan says gun accidents in which people think the weapon is unloaded are common. “That’s exactly what happened in the Ware case,” says Ms. Cowan. “The thing to do is to always assume that guns are loaded. They are not instruments to be taken for granted or played with.” She also advises parents with weapons in their homes to take seriously the responsibility to see that guns are secure from children or anyone not mentally competent. “All these gun safety courses we have are good, but in addition to training and laws, if you have a weapon in arm’s reach of a child, all that training is null and void. Training is one thing and common sense is another,” says Ms. Cowan. Mrs. Hilliard says that despite her bitterness, she knows the shooting and death of her son also has been hard on the other two boys and their families. A friend of the boy who fired the gun told her “he’s taking it rough.” And Mrs. Hilliard says the cousin who witnessed the accident may need counseling. “At times, I think it’s not really hit me yet,” said the mother, with a sigh. “I’ve went through it all, but I think I haven’t really realized what I’m doing. We got some flowers. The card says Joe Ware — that’s his daddy — and Nathanial Ware. And at the bottom it says Heritage. “I was looking at that and I thought, “Well, that’s a funeral home. Why is that there.’ And I remembered. I just can’t understand it. An 18-year-old boy should have had training on a gun. My son should still be here. I don’t know.”
How to prevent About 1 of every 3 deaths from accidental firearm discharges could be prevented by a firearms safety device, according to a report by the United States General Accounting Office. Looking at 107 accidental shooting deaths in the calendar years of 1988 and 1989, GAO investigators found that 8 percent could have been prevented had the guns been equipped with a childproof safety device. And another 23 percent could have been prevented had the guns been equipped with a loading indicator that would have shown weapons thought to empty actually contained ammunition. GAO’s study also, for the first time, provided an estimate on nonfatal accidental shootings. Examining data on accidental shootings in 10 cities, the GAO found a ratio of 105 injuries for each death — that is, more than 100 to 1.
Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN) — Thursday, February 1, 1996