FLASHBACK 1991: Utah youth shoot each other at an alarming rate—But Utah has a silencer on the problem | City Weekly REWIND | Salt Lake City Weekly

FLASHBACK 1991: Utah youth shoot each other at an alarming rate—But Utah has a silencer on the problem 

Bang Bang You're Dead

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In commemoration of City Weekly's 40th anniversary, we are digging into our archives to celebrate. Each week, we FLASHBACK to a story or column from our past in honor of four decades of local alt-journalism. Whether the names and issues are familiar or new, we are grateful to have this unique newspaper to contain them all.

Title: Bang Bang You're Dead
Author: Gode Davis
Date: May 14, 1991

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On October 21, 1989, 11-year-old Aaron Farnsworth was gutshot—shot in the belly—as he played with a friend in a bedroom of his Sandy home. Aaron later recovered.

Twelve-year-old Matt Sharp was less fortunate. On June 29, 1988, the Bountiful boy was with a 13-year-old friend in a basement when a .22-caliber rifle they were playing with "just went off," allowing a bullet to enter Matt's heart. Further details were sketchy at the time, as Matt's friend had a difficult time recounting the incident.

Gunshot accidents involving Utah's children are anything but isolated incidents—producing an astounding number—in excess of 150—of fatalities and serious injuries in Wasatch Front communities since 1985—an average of two such shootings per month. While girls are occasionally shot, all but a few victims are boys in a state where the kinship of boys and guns remains part of a pervasive frontier ethic. In fact, accidental gunshot wounds rank just behind car accidents as the leading cause of death for Utah's pubescent males—and the numbers continue to increase. Many cases with less serious consequences, where a child is grazed or missed, simply are dealt with at home and never reported.

The problem is anything but acknowledged. In terse newspaper accounts buried far from the front pages, most victims' names go unprinted as families are ostensibly protected from embarrassment and further trauma. "In 60 to 70 percent of these cases, police don't release the names," says Sandy City police Sergeant Terry Pepper, a 16-year veteran. Pepper generally disagrees with this policy. "Information about accidental shootings should be released, if only to educate the public about the danger. All of them are so damn tragic because they're preventable," Pepper says.

Because accidental shootings are preventable, the most obvious solution to stopping the carnage appears to be common gun sense. "Guns should be locked up and I don't know where the bullets are," says Pepper's son Tyson, 14, who is looking forward to his first deer hunt as an active participant this coming fall. "There should be one mechanical movement before the weapon is actually loaded, and the safety should always be on," the elder Pepper advises.

Excellent advice for rifle-owners, but many of the mishaps occur with "safety-less" guns—handguns. For instance, during the Christmas break in 1987, Tayala Jefferson, 8, was rummaging through her mother's purse for a pencil when she found a cocked and loaded, small four-shot, .22 caliber revolver inside. Like a striking rattlesnake, the gun went off and blew away a significant portion of the child's finger. In fact, of the accidental gunshot incidents that have caused serious injuries or death to Ogden-Salt Lake-Provo area male juveniles since the mid-1980s, Aaron Farnsworth's stomach wound shared one thing in common with at least sixty others: It was inflicted with a small-caliber pistol.

In a state where "the right to bear arms" is the most revered of all constitutional protections and the deer hunt and other wildlife bagging are mass-frenzy events engaged in by much of the population, good advice about guns often goes unheeded. Two years ago, Layton's Jason Lewis, 12, was with a friend, walking into a shooting range carrying a .22 caliber rifle. About to perform his final shooting test for his hunter's safety course certificate (a requirement for a deer-hunting license is 14), obeying the law didn't help the boy. Somehow, he tripped over a step, and in dropping the loaded gun it fired a bullet into his head just above the left eye, killing him instantly. Utah Wildlife Resources Director William Geer referred to the Lewis boy's tragedy as "a truly unfortunate accident," but nothing was even suggested to prevent such circumstance in the future.

What can be done to prevent the accidental shooting of children? Some states (i.e. Illinois and Michigan) have been gravitating toward the legislative route, passing laws to hold negligent parents responsible for accidents. In these cases, loaded guns, or guns and ammunition that are accessible to kids, would become outlawed after any such accident, but if a parent had taken proper precautions with weapons—stored them in locked cases and kept guns and ammunition separate—the responsible adult would not be charged with a crime. Such laws have demonstrated promising results in diminishing shooting accidents involving children, but have yet to be considered in Utah at either the state or local levels.

Statewide gun safety campaigns on radio and television have surprisingly never been attempted either. Some critics believe that such well-advertised public information campaigns would be too prohibitive for Utah's various hunting lobbies and thus a weakening factor in the state's perennially fragile, service-industry-based economy. Another argument is that their effectiveness would not only be pitted against prevalent pro-gun attitudes, but also undermined by the excessive violence that Utah children are routinely exposed to through fare shown on movies, videos, and local television outlets. "Gun safety campaigns would first have to be pushed at the state level in Utah, but the state wildlife control agencies have little incentive or push to get such campaigns started. Even if they did, there's also a lack of available resources," insists Sgt. Pepper.

Guidelines already in place are woefully inadequate. While some education is required of youngsters desiring hunting privileges (completing a hunter's safety course), no such requirements exist for target shooting or for people merely keeping guns in the home or car. (Target shooting is extremely popular in Utah, and Utahns consistently rate high in national competitions such as the United States Practical Shooting Association Championships.) Interestingly, when asked about how many of his friends shoot, Tyson Pepper replied, "All of them," but he could recall only two friends who'd received gun safety instruction like himself.

Part of Utah's problem with gunshot instead of gunshy boys may be related to indigenous large family sizes. "Boys have to learn respect for guns and have that respect stick with them," says Sgt. Pepper. Since teaching that respect requires individual attention and time, common sense tells you that "parents may not have the time to teach gun safety adequately to every boy in a large family," he adds.

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Other strange aspects of kids getting shot by accident may have more serious societal implication in Zion's armed beehive. In browsing through the archives of several area newspapers, it seemed that much more attention was paid to female children getting shot than boys—even though boys are victimized in this way far more often. While only eight girls were victims of serious or fatal gunshot wounds along the Wasatch Front in the years 1985 to 1991, I counted over ten times as many shot boys. Despite this anomaly's significance, the incidents involving female children received about six times as much coverage—several rather large articles as compared to a terse few lines was alarmingly typical. Is this yet another symptom of Utah society's denial of the problem? Other neighboring states with "frontier mentalities"—Idaho, Nevada, Montana—are also losing a high per capita rate of male youngsters to so-called "safe" guns. Wyoming has suffered 61 fatalities since 1985. Since it has a smaller overall population than Utah, it could be the only other state with a higher per capita rate than ours, even if it's considered that such statistical implication is far from conclusive.

Repercussions from these tragedies extend not just to the victim, but to the families, neighbors, and even the perpetrators involved. On May 7, 1987, Randy Martin's 11-year-old daughter Amy was walking down a Magna street that she'd walked only a few times previously. In a basement across the street, a high-powered rifle had the girl in its sights—just for fun's sake. Thinking the gun was unloaded, an 18-year-old male, impressing a companion, pulled the trigger, and "my daughter fell dead—like she'd been a rag doll," Martin says. Despite the senseless irony of his tragedy, Martin feels little malice for the young man that killed his daughter. "I'm not angry at him. He'll have to live with what he did for the rest of his life," says Martin.

As this is written—the season of the greatest number of accidental shootings because children have more leisure time along with accessible firearms—is approaching.

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Gode Davis

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