Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Ten minutes after she left her home for her daughter’s softball practice, the woman received a call from her 13-year-old son, who moments earlier had been on his phone, lying in bed.
“He kept saying the gun went off,” the distraught mother told police that August evening.
The teen had shot himself in the arm with his father’s 9 mm Ruger pistol.
He told police he grabbed the gun while cleaning his parents’ room and it fired, but the father – a local firefighter – said it wasn’t loaded.
A holster loop attached to the boy’s belt led police to believe the teen was “playing with it.”
The incident was one of 37 accidental shootings reported in Albuquerque last year – a dramatic jump from the 14 recorded in 2018. The figure doesn’t include three suspected accidental shootings in which someone died. Two of those cases have been handed over to the District Attorney’s Office for a final determination and the third ended in prison time for a young man.
As for the numbers leading up to 2018, that’s anyone’s guess.
“So, the increase from 2018 to 2019 is real,” said Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. “We just don’t know what the numbers were like before that.”
Local gun shop owners say there has been an increase in the purchase of guns in the past year, especially over the internet. They describe many as first-time buyers who want the guns for protection due to the high crime in Albuquerque.
The rise in accidental shootings comes at a time when the topic of gun access and availability looms large in the eyes of local politicians and the community as a whole as homicide numbers in Albuquerque hit a record high last year. Local concerns have sparked initiatives aimed at stemming gun violence, such as the so-called red flag bill that is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Organizations pushing for stricter gun laws espouse gun safety and less availability to prevent accidental shootings while business owners who make a living off firearms say the answer lies in responsibility and education by owners.
Gallegos said the department started tracking gun statistics, including accidental shootings, more rigorously in 2019 as a response to an increase in gun violence. They eventually started going back to 2018 cases to have a comparison.
The results showed a drastic increase.
In 2019 cases, most people accidentally shot themselves. Several people shot someone else. A stray bullet struck an innocent child. Eight people were cleaning, un-holstering or unloading a gun at the time. Two people were either drunk or high. Three of the guns were stolen, one bought through the social media app Snapchat. Men were responsible for most of the shootings; only three women shot themselves.
Out of the dozens of accidental shootings, many resulted in hospital visits and, in some cases, jail stays. A few ended in death.
On April 2, 19-year-old Zachary Hammond was showing his friend Eric Apisa, also 19, a gun outside a West Side home when it went off, a bullet striking Apisa in the face. Apisa was taken off life support three days later. Hammond pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Five days after that shooting, 8-year-old Diamond Williams was fatally shot after being left alone with two other children in her Northeast Albuquerque home. More recently, on Nov. 8, 17-year-old Isaiah Martinez was killed after a suspected accidental shooting at a West Side home.
APD has not given any more details on either of those shootings, but Gallegos said both cases have been sent to the District Attorney’s Office for review and possible prosecution.
APD provided the Journal with a list and short summary of most of the accidental shootings. Among the findings:
• Nearly two dozen happened in a home, apartment or hotel. Another 12 happened in a vehicle – a few of them while people were driving. Three of the shootings happened inside or outside a Calibers shooting range, at both locations, and one in the parking lot of the Cabela’s outdoor recreation store.
• On May 22, an 18-year-old shot himself while sleeping with his rifle in his arms. His mother, who awoke to find her son shot in the stomach, told police she warned him multiple times to put the gun away before he fell asleep.
• On. Aug. 13, a man was handling a gun when it went off – the bullet going through an apartment wall and striking a woman next door in the hand. The man told police he was intoxicated at the time.
• The next day, a 4-year-old boy shot himself with his brother’s gun at a Northwest Albuquerque home. APD has said that case involved a charge of child abuse but gave no other details and has not responded to requests for more information.
• The day after Christmas, a Las Vegas, New Mexico, man was “messing with” a clip he had just bought for a pistol in the Cabela’s parking lot and, thinking the gun was unloaded, pulled the trigger, shooting himself in the foot.
Miranda Viscoli of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence called the 2019 tally “shocking.”
“That’s a huge jump,” she said. “Those numbers going up like that are staggering. It points to a major problem we have coming – (one) telling us that guns are getting into unsafe hands.”
Viscoli said her group has tables at various events where representatives hand out gun locks and safety manuals. The organization has also participated in several gun buybacks statewide – in places such as Santa Fe, Española and Taos – where they pay a hefty $200 to $250, depending on the type of gun.
But the group hasn’t organized such an event in the largest city in the state, yet.
Mayor Keller’s office is already planning another gun buyback this Spring, after last July’s event was “very successful.”
During that APD-sponsored event – funded with $30,000 by City Councilor Pat Davis using council-directed funds – the department received more than 400 guns and at least five of them were found to be stolen.
Viscoli said she believes APD should have buybacks on a “regular basis” and offer more than the $75 to $100 given and they may take more guns off the street.
Viscoli said easy accessibility to guns in the Albuquerque area is a big problem, noting that teens can find and buy a gun through Facebook or Snapchat in “an hour or two.”
“Any kid in that city that wants to get a gun can get a hold of a gun,” Viscoli said.
She maintains accidental shootings are a result of lack of securing guns and requirements or experience needed to buy a gun.
“You can buy any gun you want and not have to have any training,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. I can buy an AR-15 and walk around with it loaded and not have any training – that’s insanity.”
As for getting guns off the streets, Viscoli said “that genie’s left the box” after decades of what she called unchecked, “no questions asked” gun sales and despite any background check legislation.
“It’s going to take us a couple decades to catch up to the amount of guns that got out there,” she said.
‘You can’t fix stupid’
Amid an uptick in sales – particularly over the internet – those in the business of selling firearms and teaching concealed carry courses say they urge responsibility to new owners, who often arm themselves in response to crime in Albuquerque.
Ron Peterson, owner of Ron Peterson Firearms, said around 20,000 guns are sold in the city every year – up to 10,000 from his store alone.
Arnie Gallegos, co-owner of ABQ Guns, said he saw a 5% increase in sales in 2019.
A lot of that is to new gun buyers – at least 75% – who believe the local government isn’t “doing anything to curb crime.”
“They feel they have to get a gun to protect themselves,” he said. “They don’t feel the police (offer) adequate protection in Albuquerque.”
Gallegos said he and his employees always try to teach gun safety and suggest training to buyers, most of whom are receptive. But not all.
“We’ve actually turned people away and told them we’re not going to sell you anything because maybe their attitude wasn’t right,” he said.
Mark Abramson, co-owner of Los Ranchos Gun Shop, said much of the rise is from online sales where guns are sold at cheaper prices and stores are left to compete.
It also leaves a lot of questions as to who is buying the guns.
“A lot of people are going online now and we don’t know their level of experience,” he said. “I’m always hesitant for a first-time gun buyer – to have them go to the internet and pick one. They don’t know how it feels, they don’t know how it functions.”
Abramson said employees can take the time to show buyers how the gun works, how to use it, clean it, maintain it – a service he says the internet seller is “providing none of.”
“We want people to go get the education they need, the challenge is people are afraid right now,” he said. “Eighty-two murders is a lot. Cars getting stolen is really scary. Every time there’s a carjacking people say, ‘What would I do? What tools do I have to defend myself?'”
Abramson said the rise in accidental shootings is disconcerting but the data needs more analysis to find out the cause and come to a solution – if one exists.
“The fact is, there’s a lot of guns in people’s hands and the incidents of these negligent discharges is going to be there,” he said. “You can’t fix stupid. … If you put a child in danger, you’re a jerk. And if you’re handling a gun when you’re drunk, that’s a criminal discharge beyond negligence.”
Abramson said there are three basic rules to follow:
• Never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to destroy;
• Keep the gun unloaded until it’s ready to use;
• Keep your finger off the trigger.
“People are in possession of guns, but you still have to be responsible for it,” he said. “A lot more people cut themselves than shoot themselves, but the consequences can be different.”