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Crime scene investigators and other Baton Rouge Police Dept. officers gather near crime scene tape marking off access to a house in the 1900 block of Birch Street, where police said a three-year-old child was shot Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.

On the morning of Jan. 25, a 3-year-old boy found an unsecured and loaded gun in his home on Birch Street. He fired one shot, which struck him in the head.

Amir Antoine later died from his injuries at Our Lady of the Lake's pediatric emergency room, leaving his family devastated and neighbors mourning the loss of a "beautiful little boy." 

This was the second child shot in Baton Rouge in less than 24 hours. A victim estimated to be about 5 years old was shot in the hand at the Super 8 Motel on Rieger Road across town the Friday before Amir died. 

Tragedies involving children and gun use are not a new phenomenon in the Baton Rouge area or across the state. A child is unintentionally shot in Louisiana at a per capita rate higher than every other state except Alaska, according to The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network, which analyzed accidental shootings involving children ages 17 and younger from 2014 to June 2016.

Louisiana ranks fourth in the nation for firearm-related death rates, according to the most recently available data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But unlike more than half of the country, Louisiana has no laws that specifically address parental responsibility for preventing children's access to guns.

Although neighboring Texas and Mississippi both have enacted such laws, Louisiana has not — apart from recent legislation that restricts firearm access for those convicted of domestic abuse.

Gun rights advocates say new gun safety laws would restrict responsible gun owners, penalizing the majority for the lax actions of the few. Those in favor of gun control, however, argue these deaths are preventable and that safety regulations would save lives. 

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said deaths like Amir's put issues of gun safety and regulation back into the public eye. 

"It’s a legislative issue," Moore said. "That’s for them to decide whether that’s the law that they want for their state." 

Raymond T. Diamond, a professor at the LSU Law Center and a 2nd Amendment expert, says Louisiana's constitution protects gun rights more strongly than the U.S. Constitution, making it harder to pass gun control legislation. But he says child access prevention laws would "undoubtedly" have a chance of being upheld.

“I have every expectation that such a restriction is constitutional," Diamond said. "The question is whether the Legislature’s judgment is such that they think that this is a wise piece of regulation. The other question, of course, is whether, even if it’s wise, they think it’s politically prudent to pass.”

A 2015 study by Harvard and Columbia researchers suggests roughly 4.6 million American children live in a household with loaded, unlocked guns. And research shows most guns involved in self-inflicted and unintentional firearm injuries among children originate either in the victim's home or the home of a friend or relative.  

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a policy organization dedicated to gun violence research, at least 30 states and Washington, D.C., have passed child access prevention laws that impose criminal liability on adults who allow children unsupervised access to firearms.

But even if child access prevention laws or other safe storage laws were passed in Louisiana, the logistics of prosecuting a crime when a child dies after shooting himself remain unclear. 

Currently, when Moore receives a report of a child accidentally killed or injured in a gun incident, the case is reviewed to determine if the child was killed or injured as a result of ordinary negligence or criminal negligence. Criminal negligence requires a "gross deviation" below the standard of care expected for another human being, even if criminal intent is lacking.

This is a murky distinction, one Moore said is notoriously tricky for a prosecutor to demonstrate. 

If, in rare circumstances, an adult is charged with negligent homicide in an accidental shooting situation, Moore said, he tries to put himself in the shoes of the parent or caregiver who just lost a child. He considers the surrounding circumstances of the death and negligent behavior before deciding on a course of action.

"It's not an easy answer," Moore said. "Now, because of their mistake, their child, who didn’t know any better, is dead. How and should you punish someone in that situation?"

Across the country, the CDC reported 486 deaths from accidental firearm discharge in 2017, which is the most recent data available. Thirty-one of those deaths were children between ages 1 and 4, and 30 of the deaths were children between ages 5 and 14.

Gun rights advocates say while these deaths are tragic, the numbers are relatively low when compared with other mishaps, such as accidental drownings (the most recently available numbers for drowning deaths per year across the nation register in the low thousands). 

“Nobody’s trying to legislate bathtubs and swimming pools," said Dan Zelenka, Louisiana Shooting Association president.

Zelenka said the Louisiana Shooting Association does not endorse CAP laws or safe storage laws but rather advocates for gun owners to be responsible. That means knowing how to safely handle a firearm and educating others on proper usage. 

"If you do have little kids, it’s incumbent on you as a parent to keep them safe," Zelenka said. "You plug up the electrical sockets. You don’t let your kid run out and play in the street. I mean, it’s the same thing. You just do what you need to do."

In accidental shootings where children are injured or killed, Zelenka acknowledged those situations often involve negligent adults, but he remains skeptical as to how laws could curb this type of negligence. He worries the actions of a few careless adults could create unnecessary restrictions on responsible gun owners across the state. 

"When you look at the facts, I don't think there is any question that legislation is unneeded and inappropriate," Zelenka said. "How do you legislate something to prevent negligence?" 

Accidental deaths involving small children are just one potential risk involving unlocked and unsecured guns. The Gun Violence Archive reported that in 2019, there were 24,090 suicides committed using a gun. The presence of a gun in a home is also associated with an increased risk of suicide among both teens and adults. 

Then there is the slew of children who accidentally shoot another child — a different kind of devastation from a toddler discharging an unsecured gun. 

In Louisiana, a child unintentionally shoots another child at a rate higher than every other state, according to Jeff Asher, of AH Datalytics, a data analytics firm based in New Orleans.

Asher looked at the FBI’s most recently available supplementary homicide data to determine the number of negligent manslaughter incidents involving a child under age 18 and found Louisiana ranks second in the nation for the number of negligent manslaughter cases involving children but first in the nation for the rate of such cases. He qualified these findings by noting reporting for these types of incidents is often spotty and inconsistent. 

This past year alone saw multiple well-publicized cases of children implicated in the accidental shooting death or injury of another child. Back in May, an 11-year-old accidentally shot and killed his 9-year-old brother on Lanier Drive in Baton Rouge. A 16-year-old boy accidentally shot and injured a 14-year-old girl in Lafayette in June. And roughly a year ago, 9-year-old New Orleans girl died after her 12-year-old brother shot her in the chest by accident.

Moms Demand Action, a national grass-roots group that advocates for tighter gun restrictions, endorses CAP laws and safe storage laws. Gun safety affects the whole community; they say unsupervised access can result in children using the guns on themselves or others by accident or deliberately. 

"There is such a level of trust that we put into firearms, but the reality is most people are more likely to use it against themselves or other people that they know and love than to ever protect themselves," said Angelle Bradford, spokesperson for the Louisiana Chapter of Moms Demand Action. "And I think that’s a narrative we’re always trying to unravel."

To combat community violence, Bradford said MDA hopes to make it easier for people to talk to each other about gun safety, whether it's discussing suicide risks in teens or asking other parents if they own guns before bringing their child over for a play date. 

Bradford added that, though the count of accidental shootings among children is relatively low, the numbers continue to add up over the years.

"If it’s preventable, there’s just no excuses," Bradford said. "Our job as leaders and as parents and as citizens in this community is to do the absolute best we can to protect as many people as we can. It’s irresponsible … to think that a small number somehow justifies our irresponsibility."  

While research shows CAP laws have the potential to decrease unintentional firearm deaths, implementation, according to Hillar Moore, is more complex than signing legislation. 

Passing laws "doesn't stop behavior," he said. He said residents need to understand the reasoning behind a law and accept it as fair in order to follow it. 

"I think it’s more like seat belts and smoking," Moore said. "There’s got to be some provisions of law, but also a lot of acceptance by the public that this is dangerous, and a lot of education."

Despite lack of legislation, civic leaders have taken steps to reduce gun deaths in the parish — accidental or otherwise.

Project ChildSafe started a partnership with the city-parish in September to equip local gun owners with free child locks. The national organization is supported by a host of pro-gun organizations and promotes responsible gun ownership in addition to their firearm locks. 

And gun buybacks, sponsored by local leaders and law enforcement, allow for people to receive compensation — often in the form of a gas card — for unsecured guns, removing the risk of theft or child access. 

“I think that’s where the education is important," Moore said. "The law still is not going to change things. It may make it easier to charge someone, but I’m still going to be in the dilemma of whether a parent was negligent when their son died.”

Zelenka said he too believes in an education-oriented approach to firearms, and that the community would benefit from gun-safety training in high school or earlier. The reality is, he said, the government should not get involved in a situation where the numbers are so low. 

“I think you need to step back from the emotion and look at the facts of the matter,” Zelenka said. “Most firearms owners and the firearms industry itself have been taking steps to be more responsible with firearms. Personal responsibility, not legislation, is the best approach.”

But Bradford argues these deaths are 100 percent "unintentional and preventable."

"All you have to do is keep the guns away from the kids," she said. "There has to be some sort of codifying that into law. Just to normalize this as not just a privilege or a right, but as something that still can take life, which is so precious, no matter how few or how many."

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com