'100% preventable': Indiana kids killed by unsecured guns hits record. Would new laws help?

Sarah Nelson
Indianapolis Star
View Comments
Jordan Robertson, 11. Robertson died Aug. 20, 2023 after an early investigation by Indianapolis police revealed he got ahold of a gun, then accidentally shot and killed himself. He was entering the sixth grade.

Before Jordan Robertson's tragic death, the 11-year-old was doing what many kids do as summer winds to a close. The preteen and his older brother went to a friend's house to get in some hangout time. Sixth grade was around the corner.

But, in ways that are still being investigated, an unsecured loaded gun in the home on East Market Street was picked up by the friends. Along the way, the trigger was pulled. The bullet struck Jordan Robertson, killing him. His death was reported as an accidental, self-inflicted shooting.

The death of the sports-loving boy left his siblings with an empty chair at the dinner table and their birthday parties.  

Amidst their grief, Jordan’s uncle, David Barnes, said the family felt something else: A need to act. In the months since the shooting, while also tending to funeral arrangements, Barnes and his relatives have met with Indiana legislators to see how they can prevent another family from going through the same. 

They are pushing for what they see as a solution: Laws on the books that would prosecute gun owners who don’t properly store their weapons. Such legislation, the most common being safe storage or child access prevention laws, is in place in 26 states.

The family said they don't know for certain if these laws would prevent another tragedy like Jordan’s, but they're desperate to try something. Especially after coming to the grim realization that Jordan was not the first child to die in the Indianapolis metro area last year from an unsecured firearm – not even the second or third.

Accidental shootings skyrocketed last year to an unprecedented level, according to data from police. Other forms of gun violence, such as homicides and non-fatal shootings, meanwhile declined for the second straight year.

A sizable number of accidental shootings involve children. In most cases, parents who otherwise have no criminal record leave their loaded guns unattended. For 6-year-old Billy Mack, that meant his mother's purse. For Hakiem Scott, 5, the firearm was on the couch. In 4-year-old Deor Nita's death, her 5-year-old sibling got ahold of the family's handgun from a dresser and pulled the trigger. Last January, a 10-year-old girl told police her dog stepped on her mother's loaded handgun on the ground, causing it to fire and strike her in the abdomen.

The gunfire may be "accidental," said Kelly Drane, a research director from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but the mistake has deadly consequences.

More coverage:One week, the 11 year old was playing basketball at the Y. The next, he was in a coffin

“This is not the same kind of accident as a kid falling down on the playground and skinning their knee,” she said.

Outside the Indianapolis area, children killed in unintentional shootings climb even higher. Data from the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety shows that nine kids have died and 18 were injured in Indiana from accidental shootings in 2023. The state only trails Florida and Texas in the grim statistic.

The horrific deaths have left police in Central Indiana frustrated over the preventable injuries.

"It's disgusting to have this happen," Cumberland Police Chief Suzanne Woodland told reporters in July just hours after 4-year-old Nita's death, shaking her head.

In an attempt to curb the problem, police have hosted gun lock giveaways and pleaded publicly for proper firearm handling.

Officers and members of the church hand out gun locks to residents Sunday, July 2, 2023, at New Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis.

Still, the death toll has risen.

"From a leadership standpoint...it’s like, how many times do we have to say it?” interim Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Chris Bailey told IndyStar about gun safety.

It's a trend that's continued since the implementation of permitless carry. Both police and prosecutors say the rise in these shootings coincides with an increase of people buying guns across the state who are not learning how to use them. At the same time, police stress most people who own firearms handle them properly, and a single reason cannot explain away every shooting.

Whatever the case may be, the deadly gunfire leaves families, like Barnes’, broken.

Barnes said his family’s goal is to gain momentum for these new laws outlining how the public should safely store their weapons. 

Whether they will work remains the biggest question.

What are child access prevention and safe storage laws?

Generally speaking, child access prevention laws penalize someone who does not secure an unattended gun and leave it accessible to a child or teen, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Safe storage laws require unattended firearms to be stored in a certain way, such as in a locked gun safe.

Experts argue safe storage laws are more effective because they are more proactive, requiring gun owners to lock up their weapons beforehand. In contrast, child access prevention laws come into play after an injury or death.

For example, if a child takes a firearm to school the gun's owner could face charges under safe storage laws in instances that don't rise to a neglect charge, the current threshold for many prosecutions.

Storage, child access prevention laws not a new concept in Indiana

Both safe storage and child access prevention laws are not novel concepts in Indiana. State lawmakers have tried, and failed, for years to pass such laws. 

In the last General Assembly session alone, four bills relating to proper firearm storage were proposed. None made it out of committee. One House representative and sheriff's deputy for Marion County, Mitch Gore, D-Indianapolis, is once again attempting to pass a law leveraging neglect charges against gun owners who do not secure their loaded firearm in a residence or car, which leads to the weapon harming or killing someone.

Rep. Mitch Gore talks with constituents Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023 at the Warren Branch of The Indianapolis Public Library. He hopes to pass a bill that requires people to lock up their guns when they are not being used.

In the absence of those laws, prosecutors in Indiana will charge someone with neglect if their unsecured firearm leads to a child's death or injury. At least four people in Marion County have pending neglect cases after a child got ahold of their weapon and fired. In a case that made national news, a Beech Grove father was also charged with neglect after his 4-year-old son was seen walking around their apartment complex in a diaper, waving a gun around and at least once pointing it at his head.

The state's neglect charge can carry the highest penalty for felonies, anywhere between a 20-40-year prison sentence. While it is a hefty punishment, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears argued Indiana's current laws leave prosecutors like him in a position that's "reactive."

“We have to wait until a kid dies before there’s criminal intervention," he said. "That doesn’t make a ton of sense."

He said a safe storage law requiring unattended firearms to be locked away and out of reach could mean they can act before tragedy strikes, he said. A child access prevention law, he also argued, could mean they can file additional charges in the case.

Rep. Mitch Gore had free gun locks, supplied by the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, to hand out to constituents Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023 at the Warren Branch of The Indianapolis Public Library. He hopes to pass a bill that requires people to lock up their guns when they are not being used.

States that have put these laws into place have seen a marked decline in unintentional shootings involving children, data show. According to the organization Everytown for Gun Safety, states with either of these laws showed a 34% lower rate of accidental shootings versus states that don't. The laws also have been shown to decrease suicides.

Tim Tomich, owner of Tim's Shooting Academy in Westfield, said the majority of firearm owners are already abiding by what a safe storage law requires, and he believes there's only so much legislation would do in protecting children, making it even more pertinent for gun owners to be mindful of keeping their weapons out of reach.

"It's just basic, simple stuff. Keep it unloaded, keep it locked up, keep it separate from ammunition," he said. "If a gun can be seen (in a home), it can be had."

Gore, the state representative who's tried to pass such bills in the past, said he's heard similar statements from both constituents and his colleagues. The concept of proper gun storage, he said, is "ubiquitous" among residents. But when it comes to creating laws about it? Not so much, he said.

"I always hear the term 'slippery slope,'" he said. "I had one colleague who said 'Are you going to have the State Police come and inspect our homes for (gun) safes?"

Gore said that's not the intent behind his upcoming bill. He proposes his bill only be levied should a child access a gun and fire.

"This is really low-hanging fruit that can make a huge impact," he said.

Bailey, the interim chief for Indianapolis police, said the cases are among the most impactful for his officers who arrive moments after these shootings. Bailey said he's remembered every scene of a child's death.

“The only thing we get to do after is pick up the pieces. And 100% of these are preventable,” Bailey reflected.  

When talking about his nephew’s case, Barnes describes a similar tension. His family wants someone held accountable for Jordan’s death. At the same time, they’re sympathetic toward the person who owns the gun. They know his death was not intentional.  

But it’s up to the public to understand how to safely carry a firearm, he said.  

A child's tricycle sits just inside the door as Cumberland Police investigate after a 4-year-old child died Wednesday afternoon after being shot by another child in the home on Wednesday, July 5, 2023, in the 600 block of Woodlark Drive in Cumberland Ind.

Where to get a gun lock in Indianapolis

Indianapolis Public Library branches offer gun locks during regular hours. Under federal law, gun locks are also provided with every purchase of a firearm.

Contact reporter Sarah Nelson at 317-503-7514 or sarah.nelson@indystar.com

View Comments