13 Investigates: Significant jail time rare after kids get hold of guns

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Monday, November 18, 2019
13 INVESTIGATES: Children with access to guns
Ted Oberg and 13 Investigates looked at the Harris County cases in which children had access to guns and whether any significant punishment came of those cases.

DEER PARK, Texas (KTRK) -- Marentha Sargent heard what sounded like two cookie sheets banging together.

When she rushed inside, her daughter was coming around the corner, holding her hand inside her shirt.

Blood was dripping from her hand and chest.

"Just couldn't understand what had happened," Sargent told 13 Investigates.

Then, she saw a gun resting on the table.

Sargent's boyfriend Robert Blankenship and friend Casey Flato laid her 14-year-old daughter Adrienne Lambert down and applied pressure to the wound - anything to keep her heart beating. By the time EMS arrived, though, Lambert's pulse was gone. First responders did CPR to revive her and Life Flighted her to a nearby hospital, but Sargent already knew.

The shot was fatal.

"I saw her eyes and I knew she was gone," Sargent told 13 Investigates. "They had said that if she was on the operating room table and had gotten shot, they wouldn't have been able to save her."

Lambert died Dec. 17, 2017, after being shot by her neighbor's 14-year-old son, who Sargent said took out the gun's magazine but didn't clear the chamber.

The boy's dad had placed the firearm on the kitchen table that morning when he left for work. His wife later told a detective, "I should have picked it up," according to court records.

Three months later, the boy's parents were charged with making a firearm accessible to a minor. The boy's father was sentenced to 30 days in Harris County Jail and his mother received deferred adjudication, meaning the case will be dismissed if she successfully completes community service and other requirements.

In Texas, when someone is injured or dies due to a minor who had access to a firearm, it's a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of one year in jail or a $4,000 fine, or both.

13 Investigates looked into all 55 Harris County cases where someone was charged with making a firearm accessible to a child since the Texas law went into effect in 1995. Our analysis shows adults rarely serve jail time, even after they're found guilty.

Only 30 percent of those charged with making a loaded firearm accessible to a child younger than 17 years old were found guilty, and only one of them served more than seven months. Most of them served far less - seven didn't serve a single day.

Since it's a misdemeanor, the charge doesn't affect the defendant's gun ownership or ability to purchase more firearms. A felony conviction prevents an individual from both possessing and purchasing of guns.

When the law was first considered in the early 1990s, there were efforts to make the charge a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

In May 2018, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recommended increasing the criminal penalty for the charge to a third-degree felony, which has a punishment of between two and 10 years in prison.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who co-sponsored the child access to firearms law in 1995, said the law's intent was to make sure gun-owning adults "were put on notice that they need to store the guns and keep them away from the kids."

"It's important because, obviously, kids watch TV, right? Sometimes they see cops and robbers and cowboys shooting guns and things like that. They don't know how deadly those weapons could truly be," West told 13 Investigates. "In some instances, they get a hold of those weapons and then they end up shooting another sibling or shooting themselves."

INTERACTIVE: How did it become illegal to make a firearm accessible to a child in Texas? Hear testimony from supporters and opponents of the law when it was first considered in 1995.

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History of enforcement

A 2-year-old boy shot himself in the chest after his father allegedly left a gun on the kitchen table last year in Harris County.

In 2011, a 6-year-old boy found a loaded handgun under a futon cushion and took it to an elementary school in Houston, according to court records. The gun fell out of his pocket and went off, shooting a 5-year-old in the foot. Later that year, a 15-year-old was paralyzed from the shoulders down after his 13-year-old friend shot him using a firearm left above a bar in the living room.

The most recent case was earlier this month, when a 3-year-old boy died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Harris County Sheriff's Office said the child appeared to have gained access to a pistol that was left loaded inside the home and shot himself on Nov. 1.

The boy's father, Anthony Love, was charged Nov. 13 with making a firearm accessible to a child.

Every day in America, "eight children and teens are shot in instances of family fire - a shooting involving an improperly stored or misused gun found in the home resulting in injury or death," according to Brady, a national gun violence prevention group.

In Harris County, dozens of children have been killed or injured after gaining access to a firearm since 1995. But, the exact number is impossible to know since adults in some of those cases may not have been charged.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg told 13 Investigates that she's aware of cases prior to her taking office where children of officers or wealthier individuals were involved but no charges were brought forward. She said she now takes all cases to a grand jury to ensure both fairness and awareness.

"It's important that the justice be appropriate for the situation. It's a tragedy, any way you look at it," Ogg said. "Investigations, interestingly enough, are not always simple. How a child got a gun, how a sibling got a gun, but the charging decision now is easier and that's because I implemented a new policy under my administration to take all cases where a child had been seriously injured or killed to the grand jury if there was evidence that they had gotten the weapon because an adult was negligent."

In nearby Galveston County, there's been two cases where an adult was accused of making a firearm accessible to a minor since 1995. One resulted in a guilty plea and the other charge was acquitted.

In Montgomery County, only one of five such cases since 1995 ended in a conviction. The others were dismissed or deferred. In Fort Bend, there's been 10 child access to firearm cases since the law was enacted. Only one resulted in a plea bargain. The remaining nine were rejected or no-billed.

Waller County says it hasn't had any such cases since 1995.

Should it be a felony?

Thirteen-year-old Zachary Clements was playing hide and seek when the neighbor's boy went into his home, got a shotgun from under a bed, pumped it, pointed it and pulled the trigger.

"Zachary died, of course, instantly and our lives became different lives," Dianne Clements told lawmakers in 1995. "The life that we had before is not the life that we have now or the life we will ever have again."

When Zachary died in August 1991, there was no in state law requiring adults to keep loaded firearms out of children's reach.

Clements saw Florida had a negligent storage law in place and reached out to a mother who helped pass it there to see how she could advocate for it in Texas.

"It took two legislative sessions. The first session didn't even have a hearing," Clements told 13 Investigates. "It's frustrating because the entire time we're working for safe gun storage, children continued to die, young children."

One of the reasons the first attempt was unsuccessful was because it made leaving a firearm accessible to a child a felony. Lawmakers downgraded the charge to a misdemeanor when presenting the bill in 1995. The law passed despite opposition from gun rights groups who called the law a violation of civil rights and said education is the best way to prevent these types of tragedies.

"It does not say how many guns you can own. It simply says that if you own 50 guns or 100 guns, you're responsible to keep them out of the hands of children," the bill's sponsor, House Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, told lawmakers during a public safety hearing on March 7, 1995. "It's your responsibility as an adult, whatever that parent is to that little child out there, it's that parent's responsibility to keep that child from being accidentally shot or killed because we lay our gun up on our counter and walk off as if we think that's a candy bar and not a gun."

Sargent, said if the parents of the boy who killed her daughter hadn't left a firearm out on the kitchen table, the 14-year-old would have never picked up the gun and shot it at Adrienne.

She said whenever someone loses their life, it should be a felony and their gun ownership rights should be stripped.

"If you put a gun in the hands of a person, especially a child, and then that causes the death of someone else, that should take away those rights for you to have a gun because you're not responsible," Sargent said. "I know that that's not the way that it is, but that's the way that I think that it should be. If you cause the death of another person, you need to be responsible for that."

Sen. West, who co-sponsored the bill in 1995, said safe storage laws are more important now than ever. But, he said, there's been efforts to liberalize guns instead of restrict them.

"You can have a rational discussion about these types of laws, which we did, and still be able to maintain the intent of the second amendment," West told 13 Investigates. "Given the rash of mass shootings that we've had, I think they're more important today than they were then because we didn't have, you know, back in the mid-90s and things, we didn't have this rash of mass shootings going on in Texas and across the country."

Dimitrios Pagourtzis allegedly killed 10 people and injured more than a dozen others at Santa Fe High School in May 2018. Since he was 17 years old at the time of the shooting, his parents weren't required by law to securely store their firearms.

Two weeks after that deadly shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a School and Firearm Safety Action Plan that outlined three recommendations for strengthening the safe firearm storage law:

  • The current child access prevention law makes it criminal negligence to leave a "readily dischargeable firearm" accessible to a child. Abbott recommended changing the definition of "child" from someone younger than 17 years old to someone younger than 18 years old.
  • He also recommended removing the "readily dischargeable" portion of the law, making it illegal to leave any firearm - whether loaded or not - accessible to a child.
  • Abbott also recommended increasing the criminal penalty from a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail, to a third-degree felony, which has a punishment of between two and 10 years in prison.

Earlier this year, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, introduced Senate Bill 204, which would make it a state jail felony instead of a Class A misdemeanor when a child discharges a firearm and causes death or bodily injury to the child or another person. That bill was filed in March, but never made it for a hearing or vote despite being sent to a committee Huffman chaired.

An NRA spokesperson told 13 Investigates it didn't take a position on Huffman's bill regarding making a firearm accessible to a child a felony charge.

Huffman, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety, was unavailable for an interview for weeks, but said in a statement that she's leading the effort to create legislative recommendations to protect Texans from violence.

"It is my hope that we as a committee are able to identify data-driven measures that can help reduce firearm incidents involving minors, while respecting the second amendment rights of firearm owners," Huffman said in a statement. "Although SB 204 did not make it through the legislative process last session, I do plan to refile the bill next session."

After the legislative changes failed, lawmakers did include a $1 million Texas Department of Public Safety-administered education plan in the state's budget to encourage safe storage by Texas gun owners. The budget was signed this summer, but the education program hasn't yet started. By law, it doesn't have to roll out until fall 2020.

Ogg said simply creating the criminal offense in 1995 reflected a deep change in society.

Often times in these cases, it's the parent's own child who died after finding an unsecured firearm, Ogg said. The point of the criminal offense isn't to re-traumatize the family, but to help enforce the importance of safe storage.

"Their family's broken forever and they've got to live with that the rest of their lives," Ogg said. "I don't know that the legislature was terribly concerned about whether it was a felony or misdemeanor. It was a big deal that it became a crime because before that it was looked at as an accident."

Preventable deaths

It's a conversation that could be uncomfortable, but gun safety advocates say is necessary for parents to ask.

"I knew their parents and I knew that they had guns, but assumed -- and this was a deadly assumption on my part -- that these guns were not left available for the children," Clements told lawmakers in 1995. "Unfortunately, Zachary's life ended because I never asked the question. I never said 'where is your gun? And do you keep it loaded? And what do you do with it?''"

In 2015, about 4.6 million children lived in homes where at least one gun was stored loaded and unlocked, according to an analysis published last year in the Journal of Urban Health. The totals were more than twice as high as estimates from a 2002 national survey.

The national gun prevention group Brady, said in addition to asking about food or pet allergies, parents should also normalize asking about guns when letting a child visit a friend's home.

"Every kid's allergic to bullets," said Ky Hunter, Vice President of Programs at Brady.

NRA said it has no guidance on how parents can approach that topic.

Gun rights advocates have emphasized the importance of education when it comes to the discussion of safe storage.

Earlier this year, Abbott awarded the National Shooting Sports Foundation $1 million to go toward firearms safety education materials across the state, in addition to the $1 million allocated for DPS' safe storage education plan.

"We'll be reminding gun owners that there's a safe storage option that fits their lifestyle - whether it's a gun lock, lockbox or full-size gun safe - that will help keep guns out of the wrong hands," NSSF President Joe Bartozzi said in a news release earlier this month. "We are looking forward to working with Texas communities and emphasizing that securely storing firearms when not in use is the number one way to help prevent accidents, misuse and thefts."

After her daughter Adrienne died, Sargent started a Facebook page in her honor. She said sharing her story has inspired dozens to purchase safes for their gun, and even prompted two teenage girls in Pennsylvania to talk about gun safety with their mom after a constable shared Adrienne's story at their school about 1,500 miles away.

"I'm not trying to change people's way of thinking because I can talk all day long and I'll never change that," Sargent said. "You're going to believe what you're going to believe. But if I bring this information to someone, then maybe they'll think twice and maybe they'll make different decisions in the future."

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