One year ago, on Dec. 26, 2014, while shopping at a Walmart store in Hayden, Idaho, 29 year-old Veronica Rutledge paused in the electronics aisle. She may have been distracted by one of her three young nieces along for the shopping trip or might have simply lingered in front of a high-definition television. In any case, for just a moment or two, she left the brand new purse she had gotten for Christmas unattended in her shopping cart next to her two-year old son.
Both Veronica and her husband embraced gun ownership with a passion that was not unusual in rural Idaho. They both had concealed carry permits, had taken numerous gun safety classes, regularly practiced at shooting ranges and enjoyed hunting as a big part of their vibrant outdoor life. The Rutledges were not irresponsible.; they were both ardent gun safety advocates.
Sadly, it was not enough: Veronica's purse featured a special zippered compartment to contain handguns. While Veronica was momentarily distracted, her two year-old, riding in the "baby seat," unzipped the gun compartment and pulled out the handgun. He knew what the gun was for. He had seen guns fired thousands of time at home or on television. He shot his mother in the head.
As Veronica's father in law Terry Rutledge said, conspicuously unapologetic after the carnage, "We are gun people."
God only knows how the circumstances of his mother's death will be explained to the Utah toddler and how the facts will taint his life.
It needn't have happened. Sheri Sandow, a close friend of Veronica Rutledge, told The Washington Post she often sees people with a gun cradled at their side. "In Idaho, we don't have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that," she said. [Veronica] wasn't carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident."
Self -defense wasn't an issue. Neither the Second Amendment nor stand-your-ground laws are at issue here. If we look at Veronica Rutledge's death, and the hundreds of children and adults shot by children each year as "purely" accidental, what can be done to prevent these terrible accidents? A child in the U.S. is more likely to be killed by a gun than in a car. As the Washington Post reported:
"A three-year-old boy is playing with a gun and shoots himself in the face. A four-year-old girl discovers a gun and shoots her four-year-old cousin, killing him. A three-year-old boy shoots himself in the head. A five-year-old accidentally shoots a three-year-old girl. A five-year-old boy accidentally shoots and kills himself. A four-year-old boy accidentally shoots himself. A two-year-old boy shoots and kills his 11-year-old sister. It goes on like this, story after story of unintentional shootings involving children that lead to injuries or deaths."
Unfortunately, the lines are drawn, the sides in the gun debate are deeply entrenched. Although attitudes toward gun ownership are slowly changing, given the intractability of gun owners and legislators, aided and funded by the NRA, another Newtown slaughter is almost inevitable. Sadly, much of America has come to accept the supposed inevitability of slaughtered children and adults as "the price of freedom." And as evidenced by the slaughter in San Bernardino and the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado, the lines between political terrorism and garden variety "N.R.A. terrorism" are imprecise , but always written in blood.
But what of children killing children? Parents underestimate whether children know where the household guns are stored and whether or not their unsupervised children handle the household guns. A Harvard survey of children in gun-owning households found that more than 70 percent of children under age 10 knew where their parents stored their guns -- even when they were hidden -- and 36 percent of these children reported handling the weapons.
And in shocking ignorance or perhaps denial, thirty-nine percent of parents who thought their child was unaware of the location of the household's gun were contradicted by their child. One of every five parents who believed their child had not handled the gun was mistaken.
But let's not talk about the Second Amendment and whether it applies to toddlers. Or Christian or Muslim terrorists. Or lone-wolf killers like at Virginia Tech or Newtown. Or that if guns are made illegal, only criminals will have access to guns. Let's simply try, in the spirit of Christmas, to make sure children DON"T have access to guns.
This and every Christmas, don't gift kids with guns. Don't let them handle guns. Don't proudly show them bright, shiny adult-gifted guns.
Let's set our sights on a Christmas truce, much like the opposing armies in World War One. For three days, Dec. 24, 25 and 26th let's declare a Gun-Free Christmas truce during which no child is given a loaded gun or rifle and all firearms are locked, supervised and stored so as to be totally unreachable by children.
Three days of a Gun-Free Christmas will, on average, save two young lives and perhaps an adult or two. And it might give us all the hope of more gun-free days. It's a start.