DURHAM, N. C. – Amy Pittman learned on her first day in the prison of the bottle up her grief.
As soon as they arrived, the guards took her laces so that they would not attempt to hang themselves. The cry to much or to loud yelling and she was scared that she would come back to everything she had her clothes, a sheet, a plastic spork.
But how could she not? How could anyone? Ten weeks before, Pittman was a single mother who worked overnight shifts as a gas station cashier to keep her three children fed and clothed.
Now, alone in a cinderblock cell, she is faced with criminal prosecution for not doing enough to protect them. She is pictured with her youngest, Christian, 9, into his chest. Death at the hands of his 12-year-old brother, who had accidentally shot him in the back.
“Five minutes can change your whole life,” said Pittman, 38. “I wish every day that I stayed home.”
Children under the age of 12 years die in gun accidents in the United States, approximately one time per week on average. Almost every death begins with the same basic conditions: an unsecured and loaded gun, guardian, it is void of the attention. And each ends with the same fundamental questions: Who is to blame, and should the person be punished?
A study from the USA TODAY Network and The Associated Press found those questions are answered haphazardly throughout the country.
Almost identical injuries can have markedly different results. A recording that leads to a prison term of a member state may end up with no prosecution in any other.
In 2015, a baby-sitter in North Carolina was indicted for involuntary manslaughter during a 2-year-old she was watching shot himself with a 20-gauge shotgun they found on a table. Two months later, the police and the prosecutor in Colorado chose not to charge a baby-sitter after a 9-year-old boy was shot by his brother. The sitter had left the boys without supervision, and they are loaded .38 Special in his pick-up.
Grandpa and grandma in Detroit, both 65, faces murder and weapons charges that could sent them to prison for 17 years after their 5-year-old granddaughter found a loaded gun under the pillow and shot himself in the neck. In Illinois, a grandmother, pleaded guilty to a minor gun charge and received probation after a 6-year-old boy found a revolver in a bedroom closet and shot himself to death.
In the days after the April 2014 death of Amy Pittman, the son of the decision of who the blame fell Cindy Kenney, an assistant district attorney in Durham. She said that the death of the Christian seemed to be simply no accident.
The researchers said that in addition to the shotgun that killed Christian, they found a gun under a mattress in a bedroom and an assault rifle in the closet. They are located on 100 rounds of ammunition in a shopping bag, and Kenney would later tell a court that Pittman’s underwear drawer “had more ammunition in it than the panties.”
In a country with almost as many weapons as there are people, it is not uncommon to find loaded weapons in children’s reach. A study published in 2008 in the journal Health Education Research found that firearms are present in about a third of all families with children in the whole country. Guns in half of those houses were kept unlocked; guns in one-sixth of them were kept loaded.
In that sense, it is the accident that killed Pittman’s son was, like many others. What is the difference, prosecutors said later that she should have known better.
Kenney said someone had called the county child welfare agency to say Pittman children were seen chasing each other through the neighborhood with guns. A social services worker to meet with her, warned her that it was illegal to leave guns in reach of children without supervision, and offered to buy her a gun safe, so they can secure. Pittman response, Kenney later said that the province should stay out of her business.
Pittman tells a different story. She said that she never made contact with the social services, officials, and insists she was not aware of the weapons in her house, that belonged to her boyfriend.
The prosecutors in the entire country, says the decision to bring charges is rarely easy. Parents are suffering, and stacking a criminal charge on top of that grief may not do much to teach others how to handle their guns more carefully. In a number of cases, the decision to search expenses can the costs of the surviving children of their parents.
Kenney is not the battle with her decision. Less than three months after the shooting, a grand jury indicted Amy Pittman on charges of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of the crime of abuse of children.
Pittman left her children with their grandmother and waited on the house of a friend to be arrested. She would not see them, for almost a year and a half.
The journalists of the newspaper USA TODAY Network and the AP spent months using information from the independent Gun Violence Archive, news and police to inspect all of the 152 accidents in 2014 to 2016 in which children under the age of 12 years, either killed or accidentally shot by another child.
The review found that about half of these deaths resulted in a criminal prosecution, usually against adults who police and prosecutors say watched the kids more closely, or secure their guns more carefully. The rest of the time, the officials decided the adults had broken no laws, or perhaps it had simply suffered enough. In many cases, there was little to distinguish it from the deaths that have led to criminal prosecution of those that did not.
Penzenstadler reported for usa Today; Foley and Fenn reported for AP.
The contributions to this report: Allen G. Breed, Meghan Hoyer, Lisa Marie Pane and Serdar Tumgoren of The Associated Press; Mark Hannan of USA TODAY; Dave Boucher of The (Nashville) Tennessean; Amos Bridges, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader; Madeline Buckley of The Indianapolis Star; Brooke Crum, of the Abilene (Texas) Reporter News; Lex Talamo of The Shreveport, La.) Times; and Kristi Tanner of the Detroit Free Press.