DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Amy Pittman learned on her first day in jail to bottle up her grief.
As soon as she arrived, guards took her shoelaces so she wouldn’t try to hang herself. Cry too much or scream too loud and she feared they would come back to take everything she had left — her clothes, a sheet, a plastic spork.
But how could she not? How could anyone? Ten weeks before, Pittman was a single mom who worked overnight shifts as a gas station cashier to keep her three kids fed and clothed.
Now, alone in a cinderblock cell, she faced criminal charges for not doing enough to protect them. She pictured her youngest, Christian, 9, in his coffin. Dead at the hands of his 12-year-old brother, who had accidentally shot him in the back.
“Five minutes can change your whole life,” said Pittman, 38. “I wish every day that I would have stayed home.”
Children under age 12 die from gun accidents in the United States about once a week, on average. Almost every death begins with the same basic circumstances: an unsecured and loaded gun, a guardian’s lapse in attention. And each ends with the same basic questions: Who is to blame, and should the person be punished?
An investigation by the USA TODAY Network and The Associated Press found those questions are answered haphazardly across the nation.
Nearly identical accidents can have markedly different outcomes. A shooting that leads to a prison sentence in one state can end with no prosecution at all in another.
In 2015, a baby sitter in North Carolina was charged with involuntary manslaughter when a 2-year-old she was watching shot herself with a 20-gauge shotgun she found on a table. Two months later, police and prosecutors in Colorado opted not to charge a baby sitter after a 9-year-old boy was shot by his brother. The sitter had briefly left the boys unattended, and they found his loaded .38 Special in his pickup.
Grandparents in Detroit, both 65, faced manslaughter and weapons charges that could have sent them to prison for 17 years after their 5-year-old granddaughter found a loaded pistol under their pillow and shot herself in the neck. In Illinois, a grandmother pleaded guilty to a minor gun charge and received probation after a 6-year-old boy found a revolver in a bedroom closet and shot himself.
In the days after the April 2014 death of Amy Pittman’s son, the decision of whom to blame fell to Cindy Kenney, an assistant district attorney in Durham. She said Christian’s death seemed to be no ordinary accident.
Investigators said that in addition to the shotgun that killed Christian, they found a handgun under a mattress in a bedroom and an assault rifle in the closet. They found 100 rounds of ammunition in a grocery bag, and Kenney would later tell a judge that Pittman’s underwear drawer “had more ammunition in it than it did panties.”
In a country with almost as many guns as there are people, it’s not unusual to find loaded weapons within children’s reach. One study published in 2008 in the journal Health Education Research found that firearms are present in about one-third of all homes with children nationwide. Guns in half of those homes were kept unlocked; guns in one-sixth of them were kept loaded.
In that sense, the accident that killed Pittman’s son was like many others. What set it apart, prosecutors said later, was that she should have known better.
Kenney said someone had called the county’s child welfare agency to say Pittman’s children were seen chasing one another through the neighborhood with guns. A social services worker met with her, warned her that it was illegal to leave guns near unsupervised children, and offered to buy her a gun safe so she could secure them. Pittman’s response, Kenney said later, was that the county should stay out of her business.
Pittman tells a different story. She said she was never contacted by social services officials and insists she was unaware of the guns in her house, which belonged to her boyfriend.
Prosecutors throughout the country say deciding whether to bring charges is seldom easy. Parents are suffering, and heaping a criminal prosecution on top of that grief may not do much to teach others to handle their guns more carefully. In some cases, the decision to seek charges can cost the surviving kids their parent.
Kenney did not struggle with her decision. Less than three months after the shooting, a grand jury indicted Amy Pittman on charges of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of felony child abuse.
Pittman dropped her kids with their grandmother and waited at a friend’s house to be arrested. She wouldn’t see them for almost a year and a half.
Journalists from the USA TODAY Network and the AP spent months using information from the nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive, news reports and police records to examine all of the 152 accidents from 2014 to 2016 in which children under age 12 either killed themselves or were mistakenly shot and killed by another child.
The review found that about half of those deaths led to a criminal charge, usually against adults who police and prosecutors say should have watched the children more closely or secured their guns more carefully. The rest of the time, officials decided the grown-ups had broken no laws, or perhaps had simply suffered enough. In many cases, there was little to distinguish those deaths that led to a criminal charge from those that did not.
Penzenstadler reported for USA Today; Foley and Fenn reported for AP.
Contributing to this report: Allen G. Breed, Meghan Hoyer, Lisa Marie Pane and Serdar Tumgoren of The Associated Press; Mark Hannan of USA TODAY; Dave Boucher of The (Nashville) Tennessean; Amos Bridges of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader; Madeline Buckley of The Indianapolis Star; Brooke Crum of the Abilene (Texas) Reporter News; Lex Talamo of The Shreveport (La.) Times; and Kristi Tanner of the Detroit Free Press.
Part of an ongoing collaboration between The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network to examine issues related to gun violence in America.
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