Updated: 12/26/2012 12:48 PM KSTP.com By: Cassie Hart
As Hennepin County authorities consider whether to bring charges against a Minneapolis father whose 4-year-old son accidentally shot and killed his 2-year-old brother, a Minnesota Public Radio News analysis shows such prosecutions are rare but not unheard of.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told MPR that such decisions are among the toughest prosecutors face. He says the parents are usually experiencing terrible anguish.
"What more could a parent lose in life than the loss of a child," Freeman said. "But to lose your child because you were either negligent, or just plain stupid, by leaving a dangerous weapon nearby that they could access - I mean, I cannot imagine what you'd wake up to in the middle of the night."
Since 2001, about 85 people in the state have been convicted of one of two potential charges that relate to adults who leave unsecured, loaded firearms within reach of a child. The more serious charge accuses the adult of child endangerment or neglect.
About a third of those convictions were in Hennepin County.
In the most recent case, a 4-year-old boy found his father's loaded semi-automatic handgun tucked behind a pillow in a bedroom and accidentally shot his 2-year-old brother, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner says
Freeman declined to answer questions about the Dec. 5 shooting but said he agonized over a similar case in Minneapolis, during an earlier stint as county attorney in the 1990s.
"The father had a loaded handgun stored in a shoebox in the closet in the parents' bedroom," Freeman said. "The kids went up; they were playing. The older kid found the gun and shot and killed the little kid."
Freeman's office charged the father with second-degree manslaughter, but prosecutors also brokered a plea deal that allowed the father to avoid jail time. He instead performed about 100 hours of community service educating other families about the dangers of storing loaded handguns at home.
"What we most need to do is to convince people to be smart about how they handle guns," Freeman said.
Authorities urge parents who own guns to keep them locked and unloaded, and with ammunition stored elsewhere.
Different counties have handled such cases differently. In 1997, a 6-year-old boy in Warroad was accidentally shot and killed when he and his 12-year-old sister were playing with their father's shotgun. The Roseau County Sheriff's Department decided not to file charges, saying the shooting was an accident.
Last summer in St. Paul, a 2-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the head by his 9-year-old brother. The older boy found the gun in an unlocked draw next to their parents' bed. He pointed it at his brother's head and pulled the trigger, thinking it was unloaded.
That case had a happier ending. The 2-year-old survived, and is now in physical therapy. His family expects him to make a full recovery. Their father, Lue Xiong, pleaded guilty to negligent storage of a firearm, a gross misdemeanor. A judge gave him two years of probation and ordered him to teach other parents about firearm safety. Xiong's attorney said his client plans to target his message to fellow members of the Hmong-American community.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he did not seek jail time in part because the father was already paying a high price for his mistake.
"He'll be reminded of this for the rest of his life," Choi said. "The important thing here is that the behavior changes, and this doesn't happen again. But at the same time, I don't want to do further harm to this family."
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