Georgia among top states for 'accidental' child shootings

Officers usually call them “accidental” shootings when children harm themselves or a loved one after getting hold of a gun. But were they really accidents?

The cases range from curious toddlers to teens showing off to friends -- all with a preventable outcome that destroys a family in an instant.

“That pain does not go away,” said Sonia Wheeler, who lost her only son Marcus to one of these “accidents.”

Marcus was killed when a friend's teenage brother shot him as they played with a gun he'd found in the woods.

When police arrived, officers said Aaron Harcum, 17, was screaming, “I’m sorry. I shot him.” He said they were play fighting when the gun went off.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heart-wrenching and I just do not understand,” Wheeler said.

Georgia has more cases than almost any other state.

Channel 2 Investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer tracked two years of child shootings and uncovered serious questions surrounding who, if anyone, is held accountable.

Everyone Fleischer talked to agreed on one thing – if a child gets their hands on a gun, someone is at fault. Were they unsupervised? Was the gun owner irresponsible?

In Marcus’ case, Harcum was charged with felony involuntary manslaughter. His case has yet to go to trial.

"I understand accidents do happen but when it comes to a weapon, it's that's a hard pill for me to swallow,” Wheeler said.

She says in every shooting, someone should be held accountable, even if it’s a toddler pulling the trigger.

"The parent should be responsible. The parent should know better, I would hope,” Wheeler said.


Often times the parents are just feet away.

In Acworth, Waylon Dennington, 2, shot himself in the head when his father left a loaded gun on the bed while he went to the bathroom.

In Dallas, Holston Cole, 3, found a gun in his dad's backpack and shot himself in the chest.

In Jefferson, Jaxon White, 3, was playing in his parents' truck while they were washing it. He found a loaded gun in the console. His parents screamed to stop him as he pulled the trigger.

In all three cases, there were no charges.

"I think what gets us in trouble often times in the criminal justice community is that we put our own spin and bias on it, when what we should do is look to the letter of the law,” said Dr. Cedric Alexander, DeKalb County's director of public safety

In Georgia, negligently storing a firearm is not a crime, even if a child gets hold of it.

In Chatsworth, no charges were filed when Genevieve Landrum found her father's gun and shot herself in the stomach.

But in Stone Mountain, when Andre Wheeler found a gun in a closet and shot himself in the hand, his mom was charged with reckless conduct.

"No, that's not acceptable,” Alexander said. "There's clearly differences in urban culture and rural culture."

Over the last two years, Channel 2 Action News tracked 42 Georgia shootings committed by children. More than half were 7 years old or younger. Police have only filed charges in about half of the cases, but when the victims or gun owners were black, nearly 70 percent faced charges.

"When you have those type of inconsistencies it makes people not have faith and trust in their judicial system,” Alexander said.

Seven of the shootings we tracked happened in Augusta-Richmond County. That's the most in Georgia, but the department had the least consistency in how they're handled.

"We look at the total case, and make the appropriate decision at that point. We don't have like a cookie cutter approach,” said Maj. Steven Strickland with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office.

He says officers who have children often struggle with these kinds of cases, and sometimes a parent who's lost a child through their own negligence, has already suffered enough.

"Anybody with kids, they will tell you a story where they turned around and their kid was doing something and you're like, ‘Good grief. I just didn't pay attention to them for a minute, and it can happen,’” Strickland said.

The cases where Fleischer found charges often involved older teens who were playing with a gun, or where the parents of the child were involved in some other criminal activity, like drugs.

We tried to reach many of the families who did not face charges, but even in cases where the child recovered from his or her injuries, no one wanted to talk about how it happened.