Hours earlier, he was a happy 4-year-old who loved Ironman and the Hulk and all the Avengers. Now, as Bryson Mees-Hernandez approached death in a Houston hospital room, his brain swelling through the bullet hole in his face, his mother assured the boy it was OK to die.
“When you are on the other side,” his mother, Crystal Mees, recalls telling him, “you are going to see Mommy cry a lot. It’s not because she’s mad. It’s because she misses you.”
And this: “It’s not your fault.”
But whose fault was it?
Bryson shot himself last January with a .22-caliber Derringer his grandmother kept under the bed. It was an accident, but one that could be blamed on many factors, from his grandmother’s negligence to the failure of government and industry to find ways to prevent his death and so many others.
The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network set out to determine just how many others there have been.
The findings: During the first six months of this year, minors died from accidental shootings — at their own hands, or at the hands of other children or adults — at a pace of one every other day, far more than limited federal statistics indicate.
Tragedies like the death of Bryson Mees-Hernandez play out repeatedly across the country. Curious toddlers find unsecured, loaded handguns in their homes and vehicles, and fatally shoot themselves and others. Teenagers, often showing off guns to their friends and siblings, end up shooting them instead.
Using information collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonpartisan research group, news reports and public sources, the media outlets spent six months analyzing the circumstances of every death and injury from accidental shootings involving children ages 17 and younger from Jan. 1, 2014, to June 30 of this year — more than 1,000 incidents in all.
Among the findings:
—Deaths and injuries spike for children under 5, with 3-year-olds the most common shooters and victims among young children. Nearly 90 3-year-olds were killed or injured in the shootings, the vast majority of which were self-inflicted.
—Accidental shootings spike again for ages 15-17, when victims are most often fatally shot by other children but typically survive self-inflicted gunshots.
—They most often happen at the children’s homes, with handguns legally owned by adults for self-protection. They are more likely to occur on weekends or around holidays such as Christmas.
—States in the South, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia, are among those with the highest per capita rates of accidental shootings involving minors.
In all, more than 320 minors age 17 and under and more than 30 adults were killed in accidental shootings involving minors. Nearly 700 other children and 78 adults were injured.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 74 minors died from accidental discharges of firearms in 2014, the latest year for which comparable data are available. The AP and USA TODAY analysis counted 113 for that year, suggesting the federal government missed a third of the cases.
While accidental shootings account for only a fraction of firearm deaths in the U.S., gun safety advocates have long argued that they are largely preventable and thus prefer to call them unintentional shootings, rather than accidental.
“The extent of the problem is a little bit shocking. The extent of the undercount is a little bit shocking,” said Lindsay Nichols, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. “A lot of it provides further evidence that this is such a horrible pattern that continues and that more action is needed.”
Gun control advocates demand stricter laws requiring guns to be kept locked up and unloaded. But gun rights supporters argue those measures make guns less useful in emergencies; citing CDC statistics, the National Rifle Association argues in public statements that such deaths have declined significantly in recent decades and that the chance of a child dying in a firearms accident is “one in one million.”
Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, suggested the NRA was citing statistics that underestimate the risk guns represent to American children.
He would not, he said, “put money on that interpretation.”