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When A Young Child Accidentally Shoots Herself, Who's Responsible?


In the space of one week last month, four toddlers in the United States accidentally shot and killed themselves. One of them was Shaquille Kornegay, a 2-year-old in Kansas City, Mo. She and her father were napping together in his bed. She woke up and found his gun. He said he usually kept it under the pillow or the mattress. She died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has brought charges of second-degree murder against Shaquille's father, Courtenay Block. The prosecutor stands by her murder charge even as others, including the toddler's mother, see a heart-rending mistake.

JEAN PETERS BAKER: This was far less of an accident as it was just a course of conduct of Block and a parenting style that left his child repeatedly in harm's way. I charged another case that occurred last fall where a gun was left out, along with drugs, in the presence of, again, this little girl and some - and another child in a motel room.

NEARY: So basically you're saying that you feel this is substantially different from other cases we might hear about about accidental shootings involving a young child.

BAKER: I do. I've had other cases within my county where I believed it was inappropriate to go forward with a - any charge. In this case, Block, I think we leveled the right charge.

NEARY: One other factor in this case I wanted to ask you about, and that is the mother of this child who doesn't want murder charges, doesn't believe that murder charges against the father are warranted. Should you be taking her wishes into account in any way in this case?

BAKER: I've tried to reach out to the mother in this case. She has refused to be in contact with me. And I will continue to try and reach out to her and speak to her as we go along. I'd like to make sure her other children are well-protected though as well.

NEARY: What do you hope to accomplish with this? Is - are you seeking justice or is this also - are you hoping this will be a deterrent in some way the - bringing such a strong charge?

BAKER: You know, as a prosecutor, I always want charges that we level to be a deterrence. If I didn't believe that charging wasn't a deterrent, this would feel fairly hopeless. But really my primary goal here is seeking justice on behalf of this 2-year-old child who should be with us today. She should be among us. But she's not.

NEARY: Does Missouri have any laws requiring the safe storage of guns?

BAKER: No, we don't. We do not. But Missouri is not unlike a lot of states, you know, that leave that practice up to individual gun owners as to how they choose to store their weapons and then suffer the consequences, however, if something so tragic may result.

NEARY: I would think that would make it more difficult for you to prosecute this case, the fact that there isn't such a law. I'm wondering if you think that law should be changed. First of all, will it make it more difficult and what's your take on whether that - there should be some changes in that law?

BAKER: Yeah, you know, I've begged and pleaded with the public to recognize weapons are - they're lethal. You know, handguns are lethal. That's how they are designed. That's what they're supposed to be for. If you recognize that very basic fact, then you would acknowledge that leaving a loaded handgun out in the presence and reach of a toddler with the safety off is probably going to have some tragic end attached to it. So while the law does not require this common sense approach, I'm quite sure most parents would realize that's a small step to take to secure a weapon from a toddler.

NEARY: Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, thanks so much for being with us.

BAKER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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