The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office is developing a free firearm safety course, expected to be ready in the next few months, which they hope will prevent gun violence — intentional or unintentional — in the community.

“I don’t know why, but guns are getting into the hands of young people and children and very serious consequences arise from that,” Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said. “Are we as a society not doing something or overlooking something?”

Merry’s team began developing the course following two similar incidents in West Bath in which young children got their hands on a parent’s loaded, unlocked gun and unintentionally fired it.

Stephen R. Ambrose, 24, of West Bath was charged with endangering the welfare of a child in September after his 4-year-old stepson picked up his unsecured 40 caliber semi-automatic pistol and fired a round into an adjacent apartment, according to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office.

Ambrose allegedly took the weapon out of a closet and set it on a dresser in the bedroom before leaving to retrieve his holster and belt. The bullet penetrated a wall and passed through the closet door of a nearby apartment, but no one was injured, according to police.

In May, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office arrested Ian Carr, 25, of West Bath and charged him with endangering the welfare of a child after Carr’s 2-year-old son found his unsecured, loaded 9mm handgun on a nightstand and fired a single shot that injured both parents, who were asleep at the time.

The boy’s mother, Carrie Savoie, 22, sustained a gunshot wound to her leg and Carr was struck in the back of the head by two bullet fragments, according to Merry. The gun’s recoil injured the child. An infant was also asleep in the room, but unharmed.

Merry said though Ambrose and Carr displayed varying levels of competence regarding safe gun ownership, both could have benefitted from the safety course he’s developing.

Merry said Ambrose had owned his firearm for several years before the incident and stored it away from children, but leaving it on a table where his stepson could access it was “a lapse in judgment.” Carr on the other hand took “no safety precautions whatsoever at any time” to protect his family, said Merry.

A troubling trend

Though alarming, nationwide data shows the two West Bath incidents aren’t isolated – they’re becoming more frequent.

In 2020, there were at least 369 unintentional shootings by children nationwide, resulting in 142 deaths and 242 injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention and gun control advocacy nonprofit organization. The year before, the U.S. saw 309 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 120 deaths and 203 injuries, that happened in the U.S. the year before.

So far this year, there have been at least 322 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 132 deaths and 206 injuries nationally, according to the organization. Of those, five incidents happened in Maine.

Adults’ willingness to be responsible gun owners plays a major role in stopping minors from using guns to hurt themselves and others, according to Giffords, a national nonprofit looking to reduce gun violence by mobilizing voters and educating lawmakers and headed by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a shooting in Arizona.

Between 70-90% of guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings among children and school shootings perpetrated by minors are acquired from the home or the homes of relatives or friends, Giffords found.

Nationwide, 25% of all gun owners reported storing all of their guns in an unlocked location in their home, and 4.6 million minors live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms, according to Giffords.

Last week, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley used a gun his parents purchased on Black Friday to kill four students and injure seven people at Oxford High School in Michigan on Nov. 30. He was charged as an adult with two dozen crimes, including murder, attempted murder and terrorism causing death, the Associated Press reported.

The gun used in the shooting was stored unlocked in his parents’ bedroom, according to a New York Times report.

Ethan Crumbley’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, were charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection to their son’s actions.

“Firearms are a hot issue right now,” said Merry. “When you have these situations like what happened in Michigan on top of our local experiences, these kinds of things draw attention and unfortunately they’re politicized. I respect that there are different opinions on these issues, but at the end of the day, we should be looking at this through the lens of what’s most safe for our community.”

‘Fundamentals of firearm safety’

Merry said his safety course will not question the rights Mainers have to own and carry a firearm. However, he hopes gun owners recognize the responsibility that comes with owning a gun and how dangerous they can be, especially when children have access to them.

“We understand that you have a right to purchase, own and carry firearms, but just make sure you know how to handle and store them away from people who could hurt themselves and others,” said Merry.

Merry said the course will cover “the fundamentals of firearm safety” including how to safely handle and store a gun, a skill he’s found some in the Midcoast lack.

“I remember my dad teaching me how to use a gun and my mother telling me to always be careful using a gun, and I don’t know if those conversations are happening today,” Merry said.

Geoff Bickford, executive director of Maine Gun Safety Coalition, urged all gun owners to take a safety course to ensure they’re keeping their families and communities safe — regardless of how long they’ve owned guns.

“It’s such an important thing that I don’t think you can ever have enough training or refresher courses,” said Bickford. “It’s not like driving where you take lessons, practice then get a license and drive every day where you become a more experienced driver. Most people don’t handle their firearms every day. Even if you think you know everything, go take a refresher course.”


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