Shooting accidents soar; state gun laws remain unchanged
In 2012, more Washington state residents were seriously hurt in accidental shootings than in any year since 1995. Yet despite a public outcry and promises by lawmakers to take action, no gun-safety laws have changed.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It was a stupid mistake with horrific consequences.
One evening in May 2012, Karl Johnson took apart his newly purchased .45-caliber Springfield pistol, intending to clean it.
Johnson, 24, a lanky computer nerd, had recently moved back home to Kennewick and was sitting on a bed in his basement next to his roommate, Bradly Slater, 22, playing a video game.
The men had met two years earlier as Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. They became best friends and, after surviving convoy ambushes and roadside bombs, left war with plans to attend college together at Washington State University.
But that evening, Johnson forgot to remove the semi-automatic’s magazine before disassembling it. So when he pulled back the weapon’s slide, a bullet entered the chamber. Taking off the slide required him to squeeze the trigger. And when he did, the bullet thundered out.
It ripped through Slater’s right side, striking both kidneys, the spleen and spine before resting near his left ribs.
Slater fell back on the bed, screaming.
A minute later, he realized he could not feel his legs.
In 2012, more people were seriously hurt by accidental gunshots in Washington state than in any previous year in nearly a generation.
Hospitals here admitted 122 people with “unintentional firearm” injuries that year, the latest for which data is available. Hundreds more were treated in emergency rooms but not admitted. More still were wounded in accidents that were not classified as such.
It was the highest injury tally since 1995 and 30 percent higher than the average over that period, according to a Seattle Times analysis of state Health Department records. The state’s population grew about half that much over that time.
State officials and local law-enforcement authorities say the surge may correspond to a soaring rise in gun ownership.
In 2012, licensed firearm dealers in Washington conducted 519,209 background checks for gun sales — three times the number a decade earlier, according to a federal database.
Some recent national studies have found that higher gun ownership leads to more gun-related injuries.
The 2012 numbers show that the year’s carnage stretched far beyond the three incidents that captured widespread attention in three weeks that winter.
On Feb. 22, an 8-year-old girl was critically wounded in a Bremerton classroom when a gun went off inside the backpack of a 9-year-old boy as he put it on a desk.
On March 10, a Marysville police officer’s 3-year-old son came upon a gun in the family van and fatally shot his 7-year-old sister.
And four days later, a 3-year-old boy grabbed a gun from under the driver’s seat of a car and shot and killed himself while his mother bought cookies inside a Tacoma gas station and her boyfriend pumped gas.
There also was a fourth, largely unreported incident that week in mid-March: a 17-year-old Selah, Yakima County, boy was taking apart a handgun he had just received as a birthday gift when it went off, sending a bullet through a wall and into his parents’ bedroom, where it killed his mother. The boy was so distraught that in a 911 call, he said he wanted to kill himself.
But despite a public outcry and pledges by some officials to take action, no gun-safety laws have changed since 2012.
This year, as voters consider the first gun-related ballot measures here since 1997, The Times analysis provides some first-time findings about accidental shootings in Washington state:
• Despite the media focus, children are rarely victims. Of the 2,022 people seriously hurt in gun accidents between 1993 and 2012, just 72 — 3.6 percent — were younger than 13. The age that came up most often was 22.
• Many victims are quite familiar with firearms. The casualty list includes cops, soldiers and veterans.
• The incidents rarely end in death. While unintentional shootings accounted for 30.7 percent of Washington’s 6,588 nonfatal gun injuries between 1993 and 2012, they made up just 1.6 percent of the 11,894 gun deaths — 192 in all.
• The official totals of accidental shootings undercount the problem.
In 2012, for example, seven gun-related fatalities were classified as “unintentional.” The list included the Tacoma 3-year-old (the other six were all at least 21 years old and, like the Tacoma boy, were males who had pulled the trigger themselves).
But public-health officials classified the killing of the Marysville cop’s daughter — and the Selah tragedy — as assaults.
When police responded to the two ex-Marines’ rental in downtown Kennewick, they found Slater lying on the bed, a pool of blood congealing beneath him. Johnson had applied bandages and called 911.
It was 7:27 p.m., records show.
Slater said he remembers the seconds slowly ticking by as people rushed around him. Most of all, he said he remembers what he felt: nothing.
“It was surreal as hell,” he said.
Johnson declined to comment for this story.
Slater was taken first to Kennewick General Hospital, then Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. After being stabilized, he was transferred to the local veteran’s hospital to start months of rehabilitation to prepare him for a new reality.
Slater would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.
A month after the shooting, Kennewick police Officer Bill Dramis told Slater that he wanted Johnson charged with assault and criminal negligence.
“Johnson did not clear or inspect his weapon before performing the step to remove the slide which requires the pulling of the trigger,” Dramis wrote in a report. “Additionally, Johnson did not have the weapon pointing in a safe direction.”
Slater made clear he would not cooperate with any prosecution; the Benton County prosecutor did not pursue a case.
“I was never mad at him, even when I was in the hospital,” Slater said of Johnson. “Me and him talked, we came to our understanding.”
The most direct response to 2012’s accidental-shooting surge was House Bill 1676.
Proposed by Seattle Democrat Ruth Kagi, the measure essentially would have required firearm dealers to offer trigger locks when selling guns, as 11 states already require, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
It would also have created a crime of reckless endangerment for adults who allow an unsupervised child to gain access to a gun that results in a shooting. That crime exists in 28 states.
But the National Rifle Association labeled Kagi’s effort an “anti-gun bill ... about nothing more than demonizing firearms.” Other opponents argued the bill would make self-protection harder and noted that more children die from strangulation than shootings.
The bill got a public hearing last year but didn’t make it out of committee. This year, it didn’t even get a hearing.
“I don’t know why it was controversial, but I guess it was,” Kagi said. “Anytime you mention the word ‘gun,’ it’s really hard to do much of anything.”
The failure illustrates a larger trend: The state has barely touched gun-safety laws in years.
In 1997, voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative to require that gun owners obtain a safety license and handguns be sold with a trigger-locking device.
Since then, gun laws have remained largely unchanged until this year, when lawmakers passed a bill to make some subjects of restraining orders give up their firearms while the order is in effect. Lawmakers also legalized possession of short-barreled rifles.
There has been a big change since that initiative, however: The state now collects less data about gunshot injuries.
Between 1994 and 1998, a federal grant enabled officials to collect and analyze detailed information such as type of gun for all firearm injuries, including those caused by accidental shootings and those that resulted in a trip to the ER but no hospital admission.
“The intent was to get a better picture of how many firearm injuries there were, and the circumstances surrounding these injuries to be able to provide more specific prevention strategies,” state epidemiologist Jennifer Sabel said.
When similar federal grants ended in some other states, local officials stepped up to fund the effort. But not here.
Now, because officials only have less-detailed hospital-admission data, they are hampered in recommending strategies, Sabel said.
Nevertheless, gun-safety advocates in recent months have focused on public-health campaigns.
Mike McGinn, then Seattle mayor, launched an initiative last summer to get businesses to prohibit firearms on their premises. King County Executive Dow Constantine unveiled a plan in December to offer discounts on gun-safety devices.
And Washington CeaseFire recently started a campaign to encourage parents to ask about the presence of guns before allowing children to play at a friend’s home.
In terms of policy, attention is now centered on Initiative 594. That measure would extend background-check requirements to Internet sales and most other private gun transfers.
It is on the November ballot.
Slater agreed to talk with The Seattle Times on one condition:
“This isn’t an anti-gun story, is it?” he asked after answering the phone at his childhood home in Fredonia, Pa., where he moved last year after months of rehab.
Despite what happened to him, Slater strongly opposes more restrictions on guns, which he considers essential for citizens to protect themselves.
He still carries — a .38 caliber Taurus revolver.
Slater said he is adapting to life in a wheelchair, with the help of friends and family. The worst part, he said, is being back in the town he always wanted to escape.
But Slater doesn’t blame guns for that. He doesn’t blame Johnson, either.
He blames one thing: “Bad luck.”
Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal