SEATTLE — A 3-year-old scrambled out of his child seat after his parents stopped for gas early Wednesday, found a gun police say was left in the car by his father and fatally shot himself in the head.
The accidental shooting in Tacoma marks the third in three weeks in Washington involving young children, and the second fatality. The spate of gun violence is raising questions about the effectiveness of the state's gun laws and community awareness of firearm safety.
Tacoma police Officer Naveed Benjamin said the 3-year-old boy's death highlights the need for people to secure guns.
"It is incredible in light of the other ones," Benjamin said. "You would think people would take more care, not less."
Tacoma police said the boy's death came after his father put his pistol under a seat and got out to pump gas while the mother went inside the convenience story. The boy's infant sister, who also was in the car when the gun went off, was not injured.
Detectives questioned the parents and have called the shooting a tragic accident, Benjamin said. The father has a concealed weapons permit, and no charges have been filed, he said.
Washington does not have a law specifically concerning child access to firearms, however state law is very specific about carrying loaded pistols in vehicles.
A person with a concealed weapons permit may carry a gun in a car in Washington state, but they are required to have it on their person. If they have to leave behind in the car, the law says it must be locked and concealed from view.
The shooting follows the death of the 7-year-old daughter of a Marysville police officer in Stanwood on Saturday when a sibling found a gun and fired while the parents were out of their car. And on Feb. 22, an 8-year-old girl was critically wounded in a Bremerton classroom when a gun fired inside the backpack of a 9-year-old boy as he put it on a desk.
The three deaths represent an unusual uptick in the number of these tragic accidents, according to Washington state health officials.
About one accidental firearm death of a child each year is typical in Washington state, according to state health statistics gathered between 2007 and 2010, said Health Department spokesman Tim Church. During that same time period, an average of nine kids 17 and younger ended up in the hospital because of an accidental shooting, Church added.
"You can't predict what children are going to do," Benjamin said. "You need to unload and lock it up if you're not carrying it. ... It's really not that hard to practice firearm safety."
A spokesman for the Second Amendment Foundation said existing laws are enough to encourage gun safety, as long as the gun owners obey them.
"Responsible people will maintain gun safety whether there is a law or not; irresponsible people will ignore the law," said Dave Workman, senior editor of the group's publication, called thegunmag.com. He said existing statutes, including child endangerment laws, were designed to prevent such tragedies.
Workman said what he can't figure out is why the two men left their guns in their vehicles when they were licensed to carry them.
"Most responsible gun owners, especially if they're licensed to carry, will keep their firearm with them," Workman said.
Twenty-seven states have some form of law to prevent child access to firearms, but Washington is not one of them. Such laws can include criminal penalties for adults who allow children to get their hands on guns, according to the San Francisco-based group Legal Community Against Violence.
State lawmakers considered a measure in the regular legislative session that ended Friday that would have required additional testing of gun locks and safes before the equipment is distributed to law enforcement officers for home use. The bill was prompted by the 2010 death of a Clark County deputy's 3-year-old son. The toddler took a gun from a department-issued safe, which the family insisted was faulty.
Opposition to the bill mainly focused on the cost of providing safety devices to hundreds of fish and wildlife volunteers and hunting safety instructors. The bill floundered in the House as lawmakers turned their focus to the state budget.
State Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, expressed doubt that the Legislature could succeed at overcoming opposition from gun rights advocates to strengthen state gun laws.
He said a former state representative tried and failed for years to strengthen restrictions on firearms sales at gun shows.
"The forces that be wouldn't even support doing that. It's pretty strong from the gun lobby that they don't want to see any change under any circumstance," Hunt said.
News of the latest shooting caused Washington Cease Fire Executive Director Gregory Roberts to groan, "Oh no."
"We think guns are dangerous, but they are not treated as dangerous by our society or by laws or by our regulations," he said. "We regard guns as some sort of sacred object that should not be subject to regulation."
The Seattle organization is currently running a campaign of ads on buses urging people to think twice about owning guns. People with guns in their home or car are more likely to injure or kill a family member or loved one than to use it against an intruder, he said.
"Unfortunately we've been saying the same thing over and over because we see the same thing happening over and over," Roberts said.
In Saturday's shooting, off-duty Marysville police Officer Derek Carlile had parked the family van near Stanwood City Hall, and he and his wife were out of the vehicle when one of their children found the loaded gun and fired. The shot hit 7-year-old Jenna Carlile, and the girl, the oldest of their four children, died Sunday at a Seattle hospital.
The 8-year-old Bremerton girl, Amina Kocer-Bowman, remained in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after nearly dying in the accidental shooting at Armin Jahr Elementary, where a classmate brought a handgun to class.
Authorities believe the boy took the .45-caliber gun from the glove compartment of a car while visiting his mother and her boyfriend at their home. He lives with an uncle.
AP newsmen Jonathan Kaminsky and Chris Grygiel contributed to this story.