In Idaho gun tragedy, does it matter that mother took precautions?

After a toddler accidentally killed his mother with her gun while they were shopping, critics blamed the woman for carelessness. But her family says she was a responsible gun owner who had stored the weapon in a specialized gun-carry purse.

Tess Freeman/Coeur d'Alene Press/AP
An Idaho State Patrol officer arrives at Wal-Mart in Hayden, Tuesday. A two-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his mother after he reached into her purse at the northern Idaho Wal-Mart and her concealed gun fired, authorities said Tuesday.

It’s usually careless storage and handling of guns that leads to young children finding and firing weapons, hurting themselves or other children.

But the tragic shooting of an Idaho mom by her unwitting toddler in a Hayden Wal-Mart Tuesday has complicated that picture, given that the woman, Veronica Rutledge, had extensive experience with handguns, and had the handgun zippered into a special purse designed for concealed-carry.

According to Kootenai County sheriff's spokesman Stu Miller, the two-year-old was sitting in a shopping cart when he reached into a purse and grabbed what was described as a small-caliber handgun, which discharged once.  

"It appears to be a pretty tragic accident," Lieutenant Miller said.

While critics have blamed Ms. Rutledge for carelessness – “This was all her fault,” an Ethics Alarms blogger wrote on Tuesday – her family says she was a responsible gun owner who had stored the weapon in a specialized gun-carry purse she had received for Christmas.

Rutledge, who lived in Blackfoot, was a high school valedictorian who had gone on to become a chemist at Idaho National Lab. At the same time, she and her husband had extensive shooting experience, and were both licensed – and trained – to carry concealed weapons.

Veronica’s father-in-law, Terry Rutledge, told The Washington Post that he took issue with the immediate reaction by some to blame Rutledge.

“They are painting Veronica as irresponsible, and that is not the case,” he said. “… [T]his wasn’t just some purse she had thrown her gun into.”

After reviewing video of the shooting, police quickly established that it was an accident. But despite the precautions, somehow the toddler managed to extricate the gun and fire a chambered round. It’s against the law in Idaho to carry a loaded concealed gun.

Rutledge’s background also highlights an emerging reality in US culture, where stereotypes of the kinds of people who own and carry guns are being tested as more and more women carry concealed, often to guard against crime.

Attitudes have been shifting toward acceptance of firearms, as well. Earlier this month, Pew found for the first time that more Americans support gun rights than gun control.

The shooting also plays into a simmering US debate over gun storage laws. The Centers for Disease Control counted 857 unintentional firearm deaths in 2011 involving kids younger than 14. Fewer than 20 states make it a crime to fail to store guns safely around children.

Such statistics chiefly reflect tensions between gun owners’ demands to have quick access to a weapon in case of self defense versus having to retrieve and load it from a secure, child-proof place.

“Cases [where children inadvertently shoot others] are among the most gut-wrenching of gun deaths,” Michael Luo and Mike McIntire wrote in The New York Times last year. Such deaths, they add, are “all the more devastating for being eminently preventable.”

But concerns about being the victim of a violent crime has in part pushed a burgeoning concealed-carry culture in the United States. Some 87,000 Idahoans have such permits.

Nationally, the number of concealed-carry permits have gone from a few hundred thousand 15 years ago to more than 10 million today. The trend in state legislatures, with several notable exceptions, such as Washington State, has been to liberalize gun laws.

Earlier this year, for example Idaho lawmakers voted for a law that will allow gun owners to concealed-carry on college campuses, including in dorms and stadiums that hold more than 1,000 people.

Gun rights advocates say such expansions of gun rights for lawful Americans may partly explain why violent crime has been halved in the US since the early 1990s.

But the proliferation of firearms into daily life, critics say, too often leads to tragedies like the Wal-Mart shooting in Hayden.

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