Home Alone…With A Gun

A couple of counties over from where I live there was one of those tragedies that should cause your blood to run cold.  A young man—no, a 12 year old child named Marcos Jaramillo, died in Owyhee County of an accidental gunshot.  Marcos and a 14 year old girl were visiting the girl’s sister’s apartment.  She found a .25 caliber handgun in a closet, walked out to the living room to ask what to do with it—and accidentally pulled the trigger, killing Marcos.1  Like most such tragedies, it received substantial news coverage.  This is not a surprise; such deaths leave a trail of broken hearts, not only in the victim’s family, but the girl who pulled the trigger, and the owner of the gun who didn’t know it would be found and misused.
Rare?  Relatively so.  There were 500 accidental gun deaths of children 14 and under in the U.S. during the years 1999-20052—or an average of 71 deaths per year.  I am guessing that at least some significant fraction of these deaths are hunting-related—not tragedies like the one that took the life of Marcos Jaramillo.  Compared to the other accidental causes of death for children (38,152 for that same period)3, these 500 deaths are obviously not the major risk—but accidental gun deaths in the home are a completely preventable tragedy.  Even one child dying a year of a gun accident is one too many; 71 deaths a year is 71 groups of people who are going to walk away from this with a very bad feeling about guns.

If you leave your home, every gun should be secured—by a trigger lock, or in a safe.  Even a locked briefcase is better than leaving a gun in a drawer, a closet, or somewhere else that makes it too accessible.  (When I lived in an apartment in California, I secured my rifle in a locked, hardsided gun case, chained around the toilet with a padlock.  Weird, but it worked!)

Your kids may not be a problem.  You may have done a fine job of raising kids to understand the responsibility inherent in gun ownership.  But you don’t know whom your kids may bring home after school.  And even good kids, under the raging hormones of puberty, can turn into reckless, irresponsible teenagers, who do the most incredibly foolish and reckless acts.  (I remember those times well; I managed to avoid hurting myself or anyone else with a car, but it does seem somewhat miraculous, when I look back on those years.)

There’s another reason why you should keep your guns locked up when you are out of the house: you don’t want to unintentionally give a burglar a high value item that he can stick in his pocket.  Worse than having a burglar steal a gun from you is walking in on a burglary in progress.  That burglar is now armed with a gun that you thoughtlessly left out, all loaded and ready to use.

We have had a problem with kids and accidental gun deaths since the first Colonial settlements.  Many of them that I have read about in seventeenth century records are indistinguishable from the tragedies that happen today: the parents are away; the gun is accessible, and loaded; a child decides that he is more grown up than he is really is—and a child is cut down prematurely.  Governor John Winthrop reported one such tragedy in 1642 that reminds us that nothing has really changed when it comes to curious children trying to behave like adults.

“One Richard Sylvester, having three small children, he and his wife going to the assembly, upon the Lord's day, left their children at home. The eldest was without doors looking to some cattle; the middle-most, being a son about five years old, seeing his father's fowling piece, (being a very great one,) stand in the chimney, took it and laid it upon a stool, as he had seen his father do, and pulled up the cock, (the spring being weak,) and put down the hammer, then went to the other end and blowed in the mouth of the piece, as he had seen his father also do, and with that stirring the piece, being charged, it went off, and shot the child into the mouth and through his head.”4

And yet, as important as it is for us as gun owners to keep our weapons properly secured—and to encourage other gun owners to do likewise—I can’t support the various “unsafe storage” laws that states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California have passed.  Why?  Because there are just enough situations where a minor uses a gun in self-defense—and where I am going to have to assume that the parents looked at the risks involved, and decided that little Johnny was safer with access to a gun, than he would have been without.

On the Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog5, we record huge numbers of news stories where, as the name suggests, civilians use guns in self-defense.  What astonishes me is how often these incidents turn out to involve minors who have been left home alone with a gun—or where a minor comes to the defense of an adult who is under attack.  As I write this article on July 21, 2009, there are 17 incidents where a minor used a gun in self-defense and it came to the attention of the news media and we became aware of it.  Here’s a recent incident from Port Allen, Louisiana:

“PORT ALLEN, LA (WAFB) - A ten-year-old boy left home alone with his sister used his mother's gun to shoot an intruder in the face, police said. …

“Deputies say Dean Favron and Roderick Porter knocked several times on the apartment door. The two young children, a ten-year-old boy and eight-year-old girl, stood on the other side, terrified. ‘He told his sister to be quiet and seconds later, they started kicking on the door and finally kicked the door in,’ said Sheriff Mike Cazes. The two children ran to their mother's bedroom closet. 

“In a panic, the ten-year-old grabbed his mother's gun for protection. ‘He did what I told him to do. I never told him to get the gun, but thank God he did,’ she said. Once the two suspects opened the door, threatening the kids, deputies say the boy fired a bullet into the lip of Roderick Porter.”6
Another incident involved a 17 year old in Sacramento who shot his mother’s boyfriend, James Davis, to protect his mother, who the news account described as “severely beaten” by Davis.  Davis had a history of domestic violence.7  This seems to be a surprisingly common theme.  Another incident from Leavenworth, Kansas, involved a 16 year old who shot his mother’s ex-husband:

“The woman said her ex-husband had been abusive many times before, so she divorced him two years ago.

“But at 2:30 a.m., he suddenly barged into her home. She said he pulled out a knife and dragged her into the front yard, and that was when she said her son grabbed a gun from the house and pulled the trigger, hitting his ex-stepfather in the stomach.

“’He's a very quiet kid, and he's not the type to do anything like that, but he had had enough,’ she said.”8
There are other incidents that are quite remarkable—a 12 year old who defended his parents from five masked thugs who forced their way into the home, in Greenville, South Carolina in July of 2006.  He didn’t even have to fire the gun—just pointing it at the bad guys caused them to remember an urgent appointment elsewhere.  As the father explained, “George says he has five guns in the house. His taught his son how to use each of them.”9

We emphasize a lot in the gun owner community the importance of not only securing our guns, but gunproofing our kids—teaching them how serious of a responsibility guns are, and that guns are not a toy.  I believe that this is a valid approach—but I don’t think it is sufficient.  Each of us has to make sensible, realistic decisions about how much trust to put in not only our kids, but with the friends that our kids may bring over.

My kids are grown and out of the house now.  Where I live now, having guns accessible to my kids would probably be more of a danger than an advantage—because there is effectively no crime here.  In most of the places where I have lived that has been the case—the risk of even a good kid doing something stupid, or inviting over a stupid friend, are far higher than the risk that a criminal will force entry.  

There have been times and places where this has not been the case.  When my wife and I lived in Irvine, California in the 1980s, there were a few terrifying days when Richard Rameriz, “the Night Stalker,” was raping, torturing, mutilating, and murdering people just a few miles from where we lived.  Even worse, he seemed to have an almost supernatural ability to enter even well secured places without making any noise.  My wife and I ordinarily kept all of our guns well secured, even at night, because it wasn’t that dangerous of an area, and we had an active toddler.  But that weekend, we slept with a Colt Government Model on one side of the bed, and an AR-15 on the other, both loaded.  Temporarily, the greater danger was Richard Rameriz.

For most Americans, circumstances like this are the exception.  But I can remember in the early 1980s reading a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a 15 year old girl in West Oakland who, when a rapist forced entry through a window, drew a handgun from under her pillow, and shot the rapist to death.  Good for her—but it tells you something about the state of West Oakland that she felt a need to do this—and as it turned out, she wasn’t paranoid.  That’s the biggest tragedy of all.


Clayton E. Cramer lives in Horseshoe Bend.  His most recent book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie was published by Nelson Current in 2006.


Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian.  His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2006), is available in bookstores.  His web site is http://www.claytoncramer.com.


1 “Teen faces charges for 12-year-old's shooting death,” KTVB.COM, May 14, 2009, http://www.ktvb.com/news/localnews/stories/ktvbn-may1409-homedale_girl_charged.3084386.html, last accessed July 21, 2009.

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Compressed Mortality File 1999-2005. CDC WONDER On-line Database, compiled from Compressed Mortality File 1999-2005 Series 20 No. 2K, 2008. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/cmf-icd10.html on Jul 21, 2009 10:23:31 PM.

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Compressed Mortality File 1999-2005. CDC WONDER On-line Database, compiled from Compressed Mortality File 1999-2005 Series 20 No. 2K, 2008. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/cmf-icd10.html on Jul 21, 2009 10:29:21 PM.

4 John Winthrop, James Kendall Hosmer, ed., Winthrop’s Journal (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 2:72.

5 http://www.gundefense.net

6 David Spunt, “Child shoots intruder during home break-in,” WAFB.COM, July 17, 2009, http://www.wafb.com/global/story.asp?s=10741492, last accessed July 21, 2009.

7 Kim Minugh, “Teen accused in Sacramento County homicide,” Sacramento Bee, May 21, 2009, http://www.sacbee.com/ourregion/story/1880096.html?mi_rss=Our%2520Region, last accessed July 21, 2009.

8 “Son Shoots Ex-Stepdad To Protect Her, Mom Says,” KCTV channel 5, November 21, 2008, http://www.kctv5.com/news/18036943/detail.html#-., last accessed July 21, 2009.

9 http://www.claytoncramer.com/gundefenseblog/2006_07_01_archive.html#115258787672181720 reproduces the article which originally appeared on Fox21.COM, July 10, 2006, but has since disappeared.