Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 5. TYLER DUNN (11)
8:19 P.M. EST
AS CLOUDS GLOWERED OVER RURAL MICHIGAN, THREE LONG, sharp, discordant beeps sounded in slow, even succession over my car radio, followed by a dispassionate voice on every available station warning of extreme weather. In measured, urgent, intrusive tones, it promised conditions that were not just extreme—thunderstorms, lightning, flash flooding—but almost Biblical in their impact. Hail was coming, the voice said, that might ruin your roof, lightning that could kill, weather so ferocious one should stay away from windows. These calamities, I was warned, would be moving through counties I had never heard of, which meant I had no idea whether I was heading toward the storm or away from it.
But there was little reason to worry. Unlike in the city, where weather creeps up on your built environment and then mugs you unawares, here it made its presence and intentions clear long before it approached. The horizon is so broad, the landscape so sparse, and the sky so huge that the weather declares itself with great ceremony. Long streaks of lightning cracked at the early-morning sky to the west like a huge cosmic whip. The clouds brooding in the distance were drifting south and west and clearing on their journey. Despite the dire warnings from my car radio as I headed northeast, toward Michigan’s thumb, I could see that the storm was skirting around me.
Sanilac County, where I was heading, has a lower population density than Finland1 and is slightly less racially diverse than Norway (it is over 95 percent white).2 According to Michigan’s Department of Agriculture, Sanilac leads the state in its acreage devoted to soy, corn, wheat, dairy farms, and general cattle operations and is third in its acreage dedicated to sugar beets.3 Straight roads lead past silos, Dutch barns, rows of corn, grazing livestock, and fallow fields interspersed with the occasional township and homestead as you head toward Lake Huron (one of the Greats), which serves as its eastern border.
Marlette, population 1,879, lies on Sanilac’s southwest flank, the third-biggest town and a twenty-five-minute drive to the county seat of Sandusky. The shiny blue water tower bearing the town’s name announces itself from afar to the left while McDonald’s golden arches peer over the trees to the right. From the south, the first sign welcoming you into town bears the motto “Marlette, The Heart of the Thumb.” Underneath the second sign, which simply states “Marlette City Limit,” is a footnote of sorts boasting, “Home of the Boys’ Cross Country Div 3 State Champion Runner Up.” The nearest cinema is in Sandusky; you’re about half an hour drive from the nearest Starbucks and non-Christian bookshop.
Long ago, writes Kate McGill, one of the town’s early settlers, in The Beginnings of Marlette, this “had been the home of the Sauk Indians, later of the Chippewas. But the settlements at Detroit had driven them back until in 1854 only a few scattering bands remained. Through the primeval forests, guided only by the blazed trail of the woodsman surveyor, came the hardy pioneer, to hew out for himself a home and fortune in the new land.”4
The Irish and Scots in Ontario, Canada, “loaded their guns, sharpened their axes and came to investigate,” floating over the Huron. Rumors had swirled of “tall timber and fertile soil that was almost free for the asking,”5 and gradually the immigrants made the area their own. A century and a half later it feels like the town that ate Gilbert Grape by day; driving through by night, particularly during the winter, you feel like an extra in the movie Fargo.
Brittany Dunn, age twenty, wouldn’t be anywhere else. “I’d rather live here than in the city,” she says. “It’s more laid back,” says her grandmother, Janet Allen, who moved the seventy miles from White Lake for the “peace and quiet.” “You’ve got your own space,” continues Brittany. “In the city you’re, like, on top of each other, neighbor to neighbor.” I was sitting in a pizzeria opposite Marlette’s only Chinese restaurant, with four generations of the Dunn family: Janet, Lora Dunn Bartz (Janet’s daughter), Brittany (Lora’s daughter), and Ciannah (Brittany’s very well behaved seven-month-old baby), as well as Thomas Bartz, Lora’s husband. “Doesn’t it get boring?” I ask.
“No,” says Lora. “It doesn’t get boring. It’s like a journey if you have to go to the mall or something. It’s like a day’s worth of traveling.” She says this as though it’s a good thing, allowing her poker face to give way to a wry smile.
This vast expanse of land, both fertile and fallow, wild and tamed, was her son’s playground. To a city dweller like me, Tyler’s outdoor hobbies make him sound like a character from a Mark Twain novel. Tyler Dunn, who was eleven when he died, loved trapping critters, hunting, catching fish in the creek behind the house, four-wheeling and dirt-biking in the summer, and sledding in the winter. “When children are demonized by the newspapers, they are often described as feral,” wrote George Monbiot in the Guardian.6 “But feral is what children should be: it means released from captivity or domestication. Those who live in crowded flats, surrounded by concrete, mown grass and other people’s property, cannot escape their captivity without breaking the law. Games and explorations that are seen as healthy in the countryside are criminalized in the cities. Children who have never visited the countryside live under constant restraint.”
By this definition, Tyler was semiferal. He was free to roam and explore and engage with the natural world and was trusted to do so with precious few constraints. The Dunns lived three miles down a dirt road off Highway 53, which runs straight from the interstate into Marlette. Several miles from the nearest traffic light—or even streetlight—and surrounded by fields, he was safe to do “his own thing” and have his parents check in on him occasionally.
Yet the call to the wild was always competing with the call to the screen. Like Jaiden, his favorite TV show was Duck Dynasty, with Sponge-Bob and Family Guy close runners-up. But it was gaming that really had him hooked. When he accompanied his parents on errands, he’d take a computer game with him. At home, he’d keep to himself, texting friends on his mother’s phone. And he loved video games. Particularly Call of Duty, which morphs modern warfare into entertainment. Mark Twain never had these distractions; if he had, Huckleberry Finn would, no doubt, have turned out quite differently, if Twain had got around to writing it at all.
“Whenever he came to my house, it was just a weekend of Call of Duty,” says Brittany. “That’s all I heard on the TV.” “Then he came over to our house and he just raced cars,” says Janet, referring to a different video game. “That’s because you didn’t have Call of Duty,” explained Lora.
TYLER HAD A ROUND, almost perfectly spherical face, crowned with a crew cut. To look at his pictures from infancy, it’s as though he never really lost his baby fat—he simply grew into it and developed a character that suited it, with a slight dimple in his chin, a button for his nose, and full cheeks that an overly familiar adult might just lose their fingers in. He was, by all accounts, a happy kid. When he was in fifth grade, his class was across the hall from sixth-grade teacher Luke Reynolds. Whenever Luke saw Tyler they would fist-bump. “I don’t know how it started or why,” says Luke. “But that’s what we always did. We wouldn’t even say anything. Just bump, smile, and keep walking.” The next year, Luke was his homeroom teacher. “He was just a very easy kid. There were never any discipline problems. He always seemed pretty content.”
With a willing audience at home, Tyler was happy to be both the jester and the butt of the jokes. Brittany moved away to live with her boyfriend, leaving Tyler with his mother, two other sisters, and Thomas, who was technically his stepfather, although he’d always been present in Tyler’s life. Janet tells how he’d “wiggle his butt like a worm” to the “girly songs” when he was smaller. Another time, at Brittany’s graduation, he allowed his sisters Ashley, fifteen, and Tiffany, seventeen, to duct-tape him to a tree. “He was only there for a few minutes,” insists Brittany. In one picture that regularly resurfaces on Facebook, he stands bare-chested with a big smile and a bra made out of two coconut halves that Ashley had worn to a Hawaiian-themed birthday party a year or so earlier.
Tyler came by those full, fleshy cheeks honestly. Lora, his mother, bears a resemblance to Roseanne Barr, and Brittany shares his features. When I asked them what he liked doing, their first response, as a chorus, was “eating.” “He loved food,” said Lora. “Junk food.” “Grandma used to make these little crabbie patties,” recalls Brittany. “And those hamburgers. He’d eat those. Nobody else could get one.” “Actually, he did take a bunch one day,” Janet says, recalling Tyler in the act of a flattering transgression. “There was a bunch in his pockets.” “Saving them for later, probably,” said Brittany.
One of the rare moments of disagreement between them came when I asked if he was spoiled. “Yes,” said Brittany and Janet, as one and without hesitation. “No,” said Lora, somewhat unconvincingly.
“Yes he was,” repeated grandmother and granddaughter in disbelief.
Brittany took up the case and ran with it. “He was the only boy out of three girls, he’s the youngest, he’s the baby, yes he was spoiled,” she said, with an air of resignation rather than resentment. “‘Mom, so-and-so’s picking on me,’” she said, imitating Tyler. “And then the girls would get in trouble. Tyler never did anything. Never had to do his own laundry. He was spoiled.” Lora looks down at her pizza with half a smile, refusing to admit an indulgence that she is pleased others have noticed. “He wasn’t spoiled,” she mutters.
But he could be sedentary. When he was doing something with a clear goal, like fishing or hunting, he was engaged. But exercise for its own sake—competitive sports, for example—was of little interest. “I don’t know if he was so into the gym thing,” said Lora, when I asked what he liked doing at school. “He’d rather sit than move.” If there was work to be done, he’d find a way to avoid it. When the men in the family went to fetch wood one winter, Tyler was found in a ditch, making snow angels.
BECAUSE ALL THE OTHER children who died that day lived in cities, towns, or suburbs, they were almost certainly oblivious to the fact that hunting season had just begun. In this part of Michigan, around November 23, you couldn’t avoid it. Deer hunting had started only a week earlier, on November 15; pheasant shooting had started on Wednesday, November 20. In late fall, churches in Marlette advertise evenings for “deer widows,” and men bond in search of prey and tall tales.
“Tradition here in the Thumb is that the opening day of pheasant-hunting season and deer-hunting season, you can just about close all the schools because the kids are going hunting,” the Sanilac County sheriff, Garry Biniecki, told me. “You go and try and get a seat at the downtown restaurant in Sandusky, and you’ll probably have a hard time because there’ll be this mass army of orange,” the color of hunting uniforms worn to identify people so they’re less likely to get shot. “It’s an exciting time.”
With the exception of Tyler, hunting season didn’t particularly excite the Dunns. Apart from his paternal uncles, none of his immediate family hunted. And although Tyler enjoyed field sports, there is little evidence he was particularly good at them. He had never, to anyone’s knowledge, successfully shot a living thing. He only had a pellet gun and an air-soft gun of his own. He loved to fish in the creek behind the house, but he didn’t have an awful lot to show for it. “Sometimes he’d catch something about this big,” says Brittany, bringing her thumb and forefinger close together to indicate the trifling size of his haul.
One winter, Darren, her boyfriend, took Tyler trapping. “They trapped for muskrat and things like that,” explains Brittany, barely concealing her disgust. “You put a trap in the ditches. You catch ’em and then you skin ’em and then you cook ’em. . . . Yeah. Nasty. It’s gross. Real nasty. . . . He liked that.” But for more regular hunting trips, Tyler turned to his friend Brandon (not his real name). Brandon lived about a mile away (which in these parts qualifies as “round the corner”) toward town, on a dirt road off Tyler’s dirt road. Brandon, age twelve, would sometimes come down and pick up Tyler on his preteen hybrid—a go-cart with a monster truck body and a motor—and they would roam the neighborhood on it together. They’d been friends since kindergarten. They weren’t inseparable; both had other friends they liked to hang out with, and they occasionally fell out. Once, Lora told Tyler he could no longer play with Brandon after Brandon abandoned him in town and went off with another friend, leaving Tyler crying as he called his mom to come and pick him up. Their friendship also had a brief hiatus when Brandon moved to Colorado with his mother, Connie, who went there to care for her sister, who was “possibly dying of terminal cancer.”
But they were close. Rifle through Tyler’s school pictures and Brandon will appear episodically. Connie brought Brandon back to Marlette to stay with his father, Jerry, for the 2013 school year. Jerry, who was separated from Connie, owned a trucking company. He had always played an active role in Brandon’s life, and Connie encouraged that. Not long after Brandon returned, the two boys were having play dates again.
Jerry often took Brandon hunting and occasionally trucking, too. And if Tyler was over—he spent more time at Brandon’s place than Brandon ever did at his—Jerry would take both of them. Jerry’s truck runs, ferrying milk and sod around the Midwest, usually took him away for eleven hours at a time. When the boys went with him, he’d give them some money to help him out. Tyler loved it. Sometimes Jerry would have them sit up front in the truck with him; at other times they’d be in the back playing video games.
On Thursday, November 21, Jerry had taken the boys hunting. Tyler had slept over at Brandon’s on Friday night, and on Saturday the boys were scheduled to accompany Jerry in the truck down to Springfield, Ohio—a more or less straight run 260 miles south and back—to drop off a load from Michigan Peat. When Lora checked in with Tyler on Saturday afternoon, he asked her to bring his bike to Brandon’s on her way to town. She dropped it off around two p.m., but the boys never did go biking because it was too cold: eighteen degrees, with winds gusting at over twenty-five miles an hour.
Shortly before Jerry was about to leave for Ohio, the boys said they wanted to stay home and play on the computer. Jerry left them to it. According to Jerry’s later interviews with police, he made this trip as often as three times a week, and Brandon took care of himself fine. He would leave at one p.m., while Brandon was in school, and be back by one a.m. the following morning, when Brandon was in bed.
Evidently, the prospect of Jerry’s leaving the boys unattended had been a concern to Lora. Usually, when she dropped Tyler off at Brandon’s, she would check to see that Jerry was home. But this time, unbeknownst to her, when she dropped the bike off, Jerry was already on his way to Ohio. “Tyler knew he wasn’t allowed there unless there was supervision,” says Lora. But Tyler didn’t call. Nor did Jerry. And Lora went out with Thomas to celebrate a girlfriend’s birthday ninety minutes away in Union Lake.
Jerry checked in with the boys a few times throughout the afternoon while they played Xbox. The last time Brandon called Jerry was around 6:30 p.m., when Brandon asked if he could order pizza from Treve’s in town.
Almost two hours later, Brandon walked out of the house with his hands up, wearing red shorts with no shirt or socks, the police telling him to keep his hands where they could see them. He had just called 911 and told them he had shot Tyler. “Do you have any weapons?” the policeman yelled. “No,” said Brandon. “It’s on the kitchen floor.” Another police car arrived. According to the police report, an officer walked Brandon to the patrol car as Brandon pleaded, “It was an accident. I didn’t know the gun was loaded.”
According to the report, a police officer went inside the house, where he found a lever-action rifle on the kitchen floor and Tyler lying on the dining room floor, in a Mountain Dew T-shirt and sweatpants, with a large pool of blood surrounding his head. He wasn’t breathing or moving. There was a huge wound on the left side of his head. The policeman checked for a pulse but found none, called dispatch, and told them Tyler was dead. As he got up to leave the house, he saw a shotgun lying on the living room couch and four holes in the dining room window.
Nobody but Brandon will ever know for sure what happened that night, says Sheriff Biniecki. Brandon claims they were playing Xbox when he got a rifle out of Jerry’s closet to show to Tyler in the dining room. He didn’t know it was loaded when he asked Tyler to take hold of it while he went to get his milkshake from his bedroom. He came back with the milkshake, put it on the table, and took the rifle from Tyler, who passed it to him butt first with the muzzle pointing in Tyler’s direction. They had finished looking at it, and Brandon was resting it against the wall when the gun got caught on his shorts pocket and went off. He called 911. “[I called them] to bring an ambulance because my friend was hurt,” he later told the detective in Sandusky. “All they sent were cops, and when the cops showed up they put me in a car, and now I am here.”
Biniecki considers Brandon’s account, which he reenacted several times at the police station with a broomstick for a gun, as basically credible. “But we believe either the gun was getting passed back to the boy, or the boy took the gun and was standing it up in a corner, and as he was doing so it went off. Obviously there had to have been one in the chamber, and obviously, with that kind of weapon, it had to have the hammer back and ready to fire.”
Back at the scene, Brandon sat in the car, apparently in shock and distress, while police combed the house. He’d been crying and was visibly shaken. When they searched him, they found in his shorts pocket two 12-gauge Remington buckshot shells and a cell phone. There was blood on his hands and on the phone. As he was placed in the back of the car, he repeated, “We were just messing around. I didn’t know the gun was loaded.” In an indication of quite how feral the day had been, when asked how he’d come by the shells in his pocket, Brandon explained that he’d found them in his bedroom earlier that day when looking for sparklers and had stuck them in his pocket for safekeeping.
Outside the house, tape went up and more cars arrived, bringing officers, detectives, and crime scene investigators. The officer who’d arrived first checked on Brandon occasionally to find him either distressed or bored: you get the impression of a frightened boy struggling to make a connection between the irreversible tragedy he has just caused, the horror he has just witnessed, and the enormity of the trouble he is now in. Asked how he was doing, he replied, “Not good. I just shot my best friend.” Throughout the night he kept asking for his phone so he could at least play games on it while he waited, worrying about where he would be sleeping that night, and saying he wished he’d stayed in Colorado with his mom. He eventually fell asleep for about half an hour before being woken by an officer and told he was being taken to Sandusky for questioning.
Inside, officers searched the property to discover a veritable arsenal. In Brandon’s room was a Remington 1100 shotgun, loaded and perched against the dresser with one round in the chamber and four in the pipe. Brandon says his father had originally left the gun in the kitchen but then moved it to his room when he had company over. There were also two other single-shot shotguns (a New England Firearms and a Winchester 370) near the closet. In the top dresser drawer were some marijuana in tinfoil and two rolled joints.
When asked later how many guns he had in the house, Jerry couldn’t quite remember. First he said seven or eight, only to recant, broaden the margin of error, and up the potential number, correcting himself to admit to between five and ten.
Brandon didn’t know Tyler’s address, but he could describe where his house was. The police went there to find only Tiffany and Ashley at home, who told them if they wanted an adult they should call their grandmother, Janet, who lived nearby. Janet came over shortly after midnight and was told the news. She called Lora. There was no reply. She kept calling for well over an hour and took Ashley and Tiffany back to her place for the night. Lora’s cell phone was dead. She’d left it in the car to charge. When she came out, she saw several missed calls from her mother and knew something was up. She dialed Janet. “Are you on your way home?” her mom asked. “No. Why?” said Lora. “I think you need to come home,” said Janet.
Lora’s mother wouldn’t give an explanation over the phone, but that didn’t unduly concern Lora. She assumed Ashley and Tiffany had thrown a party and been caught by their grandmother. She cut the night short and headed back to Marlette. Night falls heavy here, cloaking the land in uncluttered darkness. On dirt roads in the middle of fields with no street lamps for miles, the flashing lights of stationary police vehicles announce themselves with the force of a lighthouse.
Because Brandon’s street was en route to her mother’s house, Lora saw the lights flashing where she had last seen her son and drove toward them.
“I turned down there and called my mom. I got right in front of Brandon’s house when she picked up.”
“Mom, do you have Tyler?” she asked.
“I think you’d better just come here,” said Janet.
“And then she put the sheriff-lady on the phone,” recalls Lora.
“Don’t go there. Just come here,” said the “sheriff-lady,” and Lora obliged.
“There’s been an accident,” the policewoman said.
“Okay,” said Lora, matter-of-factly.
“Your son’s in Lapeer County Hospital.”
“Okay,” said Lora. “Why didn’t you tell me that, because I just came through Lapeer.”
“No, Lora,” said the policewoman. “Lora, he’s been shot and killed.”
A year later, Lora is still upset at how the news was broken to her. “So she made me think one thing, like that he was injured, and then turned around and changed it to another story, like he was dead.”
When Lora was halfway home from Union Lake, Jerry was in the lobby of the Sanilac County sheriff’s office in Sandusky. It was two a.m.; he had been called on his way back from his truck run. It had been a long day. He’d been asked to come and pick up Brandon, but he had no idea why. They asked him whether there were any custody issues between him and Connie, whether he often left his son alone, his opinion about Tyler, and whether he thought the two of them were responsible. Asked if any of his weapons were loaded, he said they might have been. Finally they asked if Brandon had taken hunter-safety classes. According to the police report, Jerry said he hadn’t because he was doing the apprenticeship program, in which a child age ten or older can hunt for two years without the safety certificate if he or she is in the company of an adult. Beyond that, he’d given Brandon only basic instructions. “I told him to hold the gun with the barrel pointing in the air. Never to point the gun at anyone, and never put any shells in the gun unless you are outside.”
How that gun had got into Brandon’s bedroom was a mystery to Jerry. He thought it had originally been in the living room, and he didn’t remember moving it. All the guns in the house were his, he said, apart from the 20 gauge, which he’d bought Brandon for hunting. He said the .30–30 rifle that killed Tyler had been in his closet the whole time, and that he’d put three rounds in the tube roughly a year earlier and had not touched it since then.
Only then, when these preliminary questions were over, was Jerry told why Brandon was at the sheriff’s office. On hearing the news, according to the police report, “Jerry became quite emotional and acted normally for a person receiving the information that was provided to him.”
Jerry and Brandon were reunited so Brandon could be read his Miranda rights in Jerry’s presence. Before the interview, the detective “went over the truth/lie scenario” with Brandon to make sure he knew the difference. He also impressed on Brandon that if he didn’t know the answer to any question the police asked him, he shouldn’t guess, and it was okay to change his mind. Connie later told the police she’d never caught Brandon in a lie, though when he got in trouble in school he would occasionally offer only partial truths.
It was 2:30 a.m. when Brandon repeated his story. “The gun fired when it was being lowered in a diagonal manner. It caught on a piece of my shorts by the pocket. I was lowering the gun to set it against the wall because me and Tyler were done looking at it.” He didn’t rack the lever, he said. He didn’t know it was loaded. He was unfamiliar with the rifle.
It is relatively easy, with hindsight, to establish a pattern that would otherwise not have been obvious. Had Brandon not shot Tyler, a handful of minor episodes, nagging doubts, and odd moments relating to his behavior would probably never have amounted to anything. But he did shoot Tyler, and over the next few days police interviews with a range of people connected to one or both of them provided hints that, even if this was not an expected or even likely turn of events, it was always a possibility.
In her police interview, Connie said that the entire time she was with Jerry, she had always been nervous about the number of guns he had in the house and always assumed they were loaded. Once, Tyler had come back from Brandon’s house with knives. Lora had taken them away from him but had never thought to raise the matter with Jerry.
And then there were the incidents at school, which emerged in the wake of the shooting, when the children were receiving grief counseling. According to the police report, on Wednesday, the day before hunting season began, Brandon had boasted during math class that he had pointed a 20 gauge at a boy’s stomach while it was cocked and loaded without the safety on. Brandon also joked that because he hadn’t seen any deer yet, he’d told the boy that he should put antlers on his head and run around the garden like a big buck so Brandon could shoot at him. The child who’d overheard them couldn’t say for sure but thought they were “goofing around” about the antler story; he also thought that “they were serious” about aiming the 20 gauge at the boy’s stomach. Brandon first denied any knowledge of this exchange and then said he couldn’t remember.
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 1881, wrote Kate McGill in her account as an early settler in Marlette, “A cyclone of fire swept across the county and in four hours’ time had laid the entire Thumb of Michigan a desolate waste. . . . A change in wind saved the village but the next day, not a farm building or a fence was left between the village and Cass River except the house of James Keys. Cattle, horses, sheep, hogs and chickens lay in the fields roasted to death. Apples hung, baked to a turn.”7
The emotional fallout from Tyler’s shooting wrought an analogous toll on Marlette. “We’re a small rural county,” says Biniecki. “When you have a tragic accident like this, it does affect everybody. Right from the families involved at the epicenter of this all the way out. Everybody knew the victim’s family. Everybody knew the shooter’s family. As you’ll find out weaving through this, both sides were devastated.”
The question of how to weigh those two experiences—grief for the dead and sympathy for those who must live with their mistakes—is not easy. In Marlette it tore at the very fabric of this tight-knit community.
Within four days of the shooting, Brittany put up a “community” page on Facebook called “Justice for Tyler Dunn.” The words “your amazing” [sic] were emblazoned in bright green over three pictures of Tyler: one of him on the go-cart, one close-up, and one of him with his shirt off wearing nothing but a big smile and that coconut bra of Ashley’s. Another photo shows Tyler sitting in a rocking chair in a T-shirt, appearing to be holding court. In the “About” section it simply states, “March 5th 2002–November 23rd 2013. Tyler Dunn was only 11 years old when his life was cut short. Please Help support his family and friends.” The last posting from the family was less than two months after Tyler’s death; they were selling T-shirts and hoodies for twenty-five dollars and thirty dollars respectively. Both say “Justice for Tyler” on the front; the T-shirts have a picture of Tyler on the back. A year after Tyler’s death, the page had 792 likes.
Erica Bartz posted the following on the page a week after the shooting:
I do not wish or pray for blood in return for the death of my cousins son. I pray for comfort for their loss, healing for their broken hearts, and strength to carry on. I do not wish bad upon anyone, especially a 12 year old boy. I do expect there be justice, yes justice for Tyler Dunn who’s life has been ended way to suddenly because of irresponsible parents who have no concern or safety for children. As for the kid who was at the other end, I pray for him to tell the truth. So anyone offended by “Justice for Tyler Dunn.” Its none of your concern an your two sense is not needed unless it’s words to remember Tyler or to be sympathetic for the family. If this was your son, grandson, brother, your family member, or close friend you would want to know the truth and have justice put on those responsible for their short life that could have and should have been prevented from ending so horribly.
But the tension inherent in that posting—compassion for Brandon alongside a preemptive swipe at those who equated seeking justice for Tyler with retribution against Brandon—gave a hint of a bitter divide. Five days after the shooting, Tyler’s own Facebook page was still up. On it, Rikki Mangone posted, “Yes what happened to Tyler was a horrible thing. But blaming the friend is not right! Brandon did not do it on purpose! It was an accident when two young boys were messing with a gun. Tyler AND Brandon need to be in your prayers! Tyler lost a life and now Brandon will have a shitty one. So for everyone saying shit about Brandon needs to stop.”
Twenty-six people liked the post. At least one did not. Janet, Tyler’s grandmother, responded shortly after four in the morning, sparking the following exchange:
Janet: HOW DARE YOU RIKKI, YOU NEED REMOVE THIS POST OFF OF TYLER’S WALL, WE HAVE NO SORROW FOR BRANDON.
Theresa Conquest-Willis: Wow no sorrow for a boy that made a mistake. No sorrow for a child that now has to go through the rest of his life with the guilt of what has happened. How dare you ma’am.
Zack Palladeno: Word.^
Janet: HOW DARE I!!!!! NO I HAVE NO SORRROW FOR HIM, NOW, HOW WOULD U FEEL If IT WAS THE OTHER-WAY AROUND, I’M TYLER’S GRANDMOTHER, AND YES I DARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Theresa: Ma’am the tragedy is on both sides.
Janet: THAT’S YOUR, OPINION, NOT MINE, SOMEBODY COCKED THAT GUN, SOMEBODY PULLED THAT TRIGGER, AND IT SURE WASN’T TYLER CAUSE HE’S NOT HERE TO TELL HIS SIDE
Janet: AND IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO HAVE SORROW FOR HIM, YOUR OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND
Theresa: Wow that’s all I have. . . .
Tina Fuhr: All I have to say to Rikki. . . . This was not an appropriate place to post this message. If you’ve haven’t noticed, nobody on Tyler’s wall has ever mentioned Brandon’s name. Nor has anyone on here saying shit about him. This is not the place to discuss Brandon and what he did. This is a place for family and friends to find comfort with each other in the loss of my dear nephew. Also, in my opinion (whether you agree or not, I don’t care) he was old enough to know not to touch/ play with guns, yet he did. It has caused a ripple in our family that will never be forgotten, nor forgiven. Friendly reminder: When it comes to your life and life of others, there are no accidents, only choices.
Rikki: I am very sorry to the people who will be living with this angry towards a 12 year old boy. I pray that one day both sides will be seen. Are the people saying bad things willing to have another innocent child’s life taken by suicide because he hears and sees other people with the negativity? This was a tragedy for both sides and I am very sorry for everyone involved.
(Lora joins the fray.)
Lora: I think Rikki and anyone needs to remove them selfs from Tyler Dunn wall . . . and u too don’t know so butt ur nose and ur opinions out of it and I don’t really care what Brandon does with his life now
Theresa: Ma’am I’m not on his wall I’m on Rikkis and the last I checked it was a free country if you don’t like what’s being said then take yourself out of the conversation there are two families suffering in this tragedy and the last thing anyone needs is someone’s bullshit.
Janet: SHE DON’T HAVE TO, SHE’S TYLER’S MOTHER SO YOU CAN SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!!!
And so it went on.
GUNS WERE MORE READILY available and accepted in Brandon’s world than in that of pretty much any of the day’s other victims. In much of rural America, guns are an everyday part of life, for both recreational and practical reasons. “Being a rural community, we have problems with everything from skunks to critters,” explains Sheriff Biniecki. “We even have coyotes that will chase newborn calves. And it’s not uncommon for a farmer to have a firearm handy to dispose of them. They’re always ready for action.”
In Marlette, gun ownership was, if not normal, then certainly not deviant. “My mom has guns in her house,” says Lora after a moment’s reflection. “They’re her husband’s. He don’t hunt too often. So he just has ’em. And Tyler used to go over there. They weren’t visible where you can see ’em. But they’re there.”
With so many guns around, the potential for calamity is ever present. A few weeks earlier, two men in an airboat in Saginaw Bay, an hour from Marlette, said they were shot at by a duck hunter.8 Only five days after Tyler was shot, a sixteen-year-old shot himself in the foot while hunting; the incident took place twenty minutes away, in Snover.9 Six months later, a twelve-year-old was shot in the hand after a fourteen-year-old removed a gun from a gun safe and dropped it.10
Although Sheriff Biniecki treats each gun death as its own discrete tragedy, one nonetheless detects in his voice a weary, if compassionate, familiarity about cases like Tyler’s. He has been in law enforcement in Sanilac County for almost forty years, starting as a deputy and working his way up. He has creases in his shirt so sharp you could cut your finger on them. The star on his shoulder and the model ship in his window give the impression more of a military man than of a rural sheriff.
“Unfortunately, every few years history starts to repeat itself,” he says. “We’ve had other shootings. Not always fatal. But these things do happen. We’ve had other adults, who, while hunting, shoot other adults. It’s still personal. It’s still human error. And you have to take some personal responsibility for what happened. Part of my being sheriff is sometimes I try to comment on things in such a way that maybe it’ll have a lasting effect. It might keep a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”
Biniecki didn’t grow up around guns. He was raised in Detroit and came to the area when he was ten. When his dad won a gun in a raffle, not long after they’d arrived, he gave it to one of his friends. “He wasn’t against them. He just wasn’t ever really exposed to them, so he thought, ‘Why have ’em around?’” Among the first questions one of Biniecki’s friends asked him when he arrived in the area was whether he had a gun. When he was twelve he worked all summer to buy his first gun—a single-barrel shotgun for hunting pheasant.
Immediately following Tyler’s death, Biniecki sounded sympathetic. “It’s just a tragedy,” he told the local press. “We believe it was an accident, unintentional. It’s tragic. Two lives were affected. One boy won’t be with us, and one will have to deal with this for the rest of his life. Everyone needs to remember that every gun is loaded. Even if it’s unloaded, point it in a safe direction, and no one will ever be shot unless it’s intentional. The weapon didn’t go off by itself.”11
The key to preventing accidents like this, he insists during our interview, is education and parental responsibility. “I think that we as community leaders need to make sure that we use the opportunity to further educate parents that if you do have a gun, unload it and put it away. Teach your kids how to make sure it’s unloaded, and put it away. Teach your kids the safety rules. And then over time don’t get lax with it, because sometimes,” he says, “parents get lax, and children are always curious. Put those two things together and bad things can happen. I believe in this day and age with the Internet and everything that’s in these smartphones and all the things that’s connected to it, all the information’s there. You can even take classes online.”
Shortly after the shooting, Biniecki gave the local newspaper a basic course in how gun safety protocols were not followed in this case. Trigger locks and similar devices can disable weapons from firing, he said, and gun owners should keep safety locks on guns and keep them in a locked safe. Either way, they should be in a different place from the ammo box. “They do not have an updated safety feature,” he pointed out. “It’s a ratchet lever-action, when the hammer comes back, it’s cocked and ready to fire.”12
“All of us know human nature,” he told me. “Children are curious. They’re at an age in their life where they’re like a sponge from the time they’re old enough to talk to start thinking and acting for themselves. And if they don’t know and they’re not taught at that young age that that’s a weapon and it’s dangerous, then bad things can happen. We tell ’em the knife is sharp. We tell ’em the stove is hot. We need to tell them at a young age what a firearm is and what can occur with it.”
This makes sense. And it is worth noting that neither Brandon nor Tyler had been to safety classes, though Brittany says she was looking into them for Tyler. And Sheriff Biniecki walks the walk. The weekend before we met, he told me, he’d helped run a youth day for the Wild Turkey Federation, a conservation organization, which provided safety instruction (among other things) for youngsters. His two daughters grew up around his handgun. He occasionally took them to the shooting range and was always insistent that they observe safety protocols.
The trouble, say researchers, is that the emphasis on safety education alone doesn’t really work. Even when children—especially boys—have been taught the risks, the lure of an actual firearm trumps the warnings about its potential danger.
In one study, pairs of boys aged eight to twelve were left alone in an examination room at an Atlanta clinic, where they were observed by researchers through a one-way mirror. Researchers didn’t tell them there was a .38-caliber handgun concealed in a cabinet drawer. But within fifteen minutes, three-quarters of the children found it, two-thirds handled it, and one-third pulled the trigger. Only one, out of almost ninety, told an adult about the gun, and for that he was teased by the others. More than 90 percent of the boys had received some gun safety instruction.13
A 2013 New York Times article on “accidental” shootings cited the case of eleven-year-old Joshua Skorczewski in western Minnesota. The boy was so excited about attending a gun safety class that night that he took an unloaded 20-gauge shotgun from the family gun cabinet, loaded it, and pulled the hammer back. While putting it back in the closet, his finger slipped, and he shot his twelve-year-old sister, Natasha, dead.14
ANY MORAL PANIC ABOUT “accidental” child shootings must be kept in perspective—not because there are so few but because, relative to other accidental deaths, there are greater dangers to children that spark less anxiety. A New York Times investigation in 2013 predicted that because of misclassification, the number of gun-related deaths of children classified as “accidental” is double the official number.15 However, even accepting the Times’ greater number, accidental gun deaths would still rank fifth among fatal injuries for children, after car crashes, drowning, fire, suffocation, and accidents to pedestrians.
Nonetheless, so long as you have a society with a lot of guns—and America has more guns per capita than any other country in the world16—children will be at risk of being shot. The questions are how much risk, and what, if anything, is being done to minimize it? If one thinks of the various ways in which commonplace items, from car seats to medicine bottle tops, have been childproofed, it’s clear that society’s general desire has been to eliminate as many potential dangers from children as possible, even when the number of those who might be harmed is relatively small. If one child’s death is preventable, then the proper question isn’t “Why should we do this?” but rather “Why shouldn’t we?” It would be strange for that principle to apply to everything but guns.
But the kind of research that might show what works where gun safety is concerned is in short supply. That is no accident. At one time, guns, the primary source of death of black youth and second-leading source for all youth, were considered a public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced findings and reports on how to limit gun deaths in the same way that they produce reports on healthy eating and how to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. They found, among other things, that the presence of guns in the home increased the likelihood of death rather than reduced it.17 The National Rifle Association was not pleased with this particular conclusion or the research in general. “Our concern is not with legitimate medical science,” Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, told the New York Times. “Our concern is they were promoting the idea that gun ownership was a disease that needed to be eradicated.”18
So the NRA used their immense lobbying power to effectively put a stop to the government’s finding out how to make people safer around guns. In 1996, Kansas Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, who later described himself as the NRA’s “point person in Congress,” successfully removed $2.6 million—the precise amount spent on gun research the previous year—from the CDC’s budget.19 The law now reads, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”20
Because legislation already in place prohibited the CDC from lobbying for or against legislation, the ruling was redundant. But it had the effect of keeping both resources and researchers away from that area of study for fear that their findings would prove politically inconvenient and attract the wrath of pro-gun legislators. “We’ve been stopped from answering the basic questions,” Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, told the New York Times in 2011.21
In January 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, President Barack Obama started a second term that became increasingly strident in its advocacy for gun control. One of his executive actions sought to shift the climate of caution by issuing “a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.”
The problem has, however, been ongoing. On November 14, 2013, nine days before Tyler was shot, President Barack Obama nominated Vivek Murthy for surgeon general. But the process most assumed would be routine—Murthy was well-qualified and bore not a whiff of personal scandal—became mired in controversy. Republican legislators focused on his support for an assault weapons ban and on a tweet he’d sent out in 2012, a few months after the shootings by James Holmes in an Aurora, Colorado, cinema that killed twelve and injured seventy others. “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue. #DebateHealth,” he tweeted.22 It took more than a year for him to be confirmed by the narrowest of margins, after the NRA rallied its members against a nominee whose “blatant activism on gun control” caught their notice.23
Research that does exist shows that children face substantial risk in the presence of guns. In more than half of American homes where there are both children and firearms, according to a 2000 study, the weapons are in an unlocked place, and in more than 40 percent of homes, guns without a trigger lock are in an unlocked place.24 Almost three-quarters of children under the age of ten who live in homes with guns say they know where the guns are.25A 2005 study showed that more than 1.69 million children and youth under eighteen live in homes with weapons that are loaded and unlocked.26 According to a Department of Education study, 65 percent of school shootings between 1974 and 2000 were carried out with a gun from the attacker’s home or the home of a relative.27
And the laws, it seems, are effective. One study indicated that in the twelve states where child-access prevention laws were on the books for at least one year, unintentional gun deaths fell by 23 percent.28 Another, from 2005, revealed a link between the presence of such laws and the prevention of youth suicides.29
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have child-access prevention laws, which range in severity from imposing criminal liability when a minor gains access to a negligently stored weapon to forbidding adults from providing children with firearms.30 Michigan, where Tyler died, is not one of them. But that’s not for want of trying. A bill to create a safe-storage law, which would criminalize those who fail to lock up their firearms so that children can’t get at them, was introduced in every session of the Michigan state legislature for fifteen years. It only made it out of the committee stage once.
The NRA vigorously opposes such laws, in Michigan and elsewhere, for two reasons. First, they argue that the number of children who die in accidental gun deaths is minuscule and decreasing. Second, because forcing gun owners to keep guns under lock and key makes it virtually impossible for them to effectively defend themselves in the home. (I imagine the “Home Defense Concepts” seminar at the NRA convention would have sounded very different if you had to find the key to your gun safe first.) But research shows that people are most likely to be shot not by strangers but by people they know or by themselves. A study in 1998 showed that for every gun in the house that was used for self-defense in a “legally justifiable shooting,” there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and eleven attempted or completed suicides.31 According to Sheriff Biniecki, most of the gun fatalities in Sanilac County are “domestic-related”—a former husband shooting an ex-wife, or “a convicted sex offender who took out his stepdad and uncle. . . . It’s about every three years it seems to rear its ugly head.”
Laws, of course, do not guarantee good outcomes. They only punish bad ones and set the standard for what the socially acceptable behavior should be. “There were a lot of things went into play that set this up for failure,” says Biniecki, referring to Tyler’s death. “The boys were deer hunting before. They’re around [firearms]. Now, one step didn’t take place. Could the father have locked ’em up and the boys have broken into it? Sure. But in this particular incident that’s not what happened. We know the gun was out. We know the boys had access to it, and we know the tragic results. I think a lot of it is our personal responsibility.” And with personal responsibility, he insisted shortly after the shooting, come personal consequences. “We’re going to seek charges,” he told the local paper. “Someone has to answer for it. The kids should not have been home alone.”32
On February 20, 2014, Jerry and Brandon appeared in District Court. Jerry was a three-time felon. According to a circuit court clerk, over the past couple of decades he had been convicted, at different times, of dealing drugs, “manufacturing marijuana and a schedule-four drug,” resisting and obstructing a police officer, “operating a vehicle while impaired,” and “operating a vehicle with an open container.”
Felons in the United States are not allowed to have guns. So Jerry was charged with weapons-firearms possession by a felon, which is itself a felony carrying a maximum of five years in prison. For leaving two boys alone with loaded guns that ended in the death of one of them, he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a ninety-day misdemeanor. He was released on $2,500 bail.33
Brandon was arraigned in juvenile court and charged with careless discharge of a firearm, causing death, which carries a maximum two-year sentence. On April 10, Brandon pleaded guilty; on May 5, Jerry pleaded no contest, telling the prosecutor he felt bad about the shooting and had told Brandon to plead guilty because “he had made a mistake.”
At a hearing on May 1, Lora told me, Connie wept as Brandon stood in gray sweat pants and a hoodie and the judge placed him in “intense probation” at her home. The next day he was sentenced. There were twenty-nine terms to his probation. He was sent to a junior detention facility for ten days, with a further twenty days “held in abeyance,” to be enforced if he failed to comply with the other twenty-eight restrictions on his liberty. The probation would be reviewed by the court every thirty days, said Sanilac County Prosecutor James Young, who anticipated it would last until Brandon was eighteen or nineteen, or “until such time that he no longer needs services and demonstrates he needs no more probation.”34
According to court documents, the terms for probation included electronic tagging, a seven p.m. to seven a.m. curfew, participation in anger-management classes, counseling, thirty hours of community service, random drug and alcohol testing, paying for Tyler’s cremation services, and a minimum of ten journaling assignments provided by his probation officer.
Point four says he must stay with Connie in Michigan, point seven that he should not leave the state without the prior consent of his probation officer, and point nineteen that he have no contact, direct or indirect, with Tyler’s family. Among them, those three points proved difficult to adhere to. These rural communities are small; the social networks are tight. Though Brandon hasn’t sought contact with Tyler’s family members, they are difficult to avoid. Connie moved less than half an hour’s drive away. Tiffany was on a shift at McDonald’s in Marlette one day when they came through; other family members occasionally see him around.
Six weeks after Brandon was sentenced, it was Jerry’s turn. Citing his previous convictions, the judge sentenced him to a year in Sanilac County Jail for the first count of weapons-firearms possession by a felon and ninety days to run concurrently for the second count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He also had to cover certain costs, including for the court-appointed attorney.35
The law had spoken. But it declared its values without any moral consistency. Jerry got a year because he’d once committed “serious crimes” that precluded him from having a gun. He got three months for leaving several guns, at least one of which was loaded, unattended in the house and then leaving his son and a friend unsupervised with them. That crime, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, would have been the same if Tyler and Brandon had found his porn stash. Not only did the punishments not fit the crimes; the crime in no way fit the transgression. His negligence had arguably left Brandon corrupted, but it had certainly left Tyler dead.
Tyler’s family believes that both Brandon and Jerry got off too lightly. Particularly Brandon, who they are convinced shot Tyler on purpose. They think there has been a cover-up. Something fishy. They can’t say precisely what. But to them the story doesn’t hang together. Lora doesn’t buy the idea that Tyler was trying to put the gun down and the latch got caught on his shorts pocket. “To me I think he was lying. I don’t believe that even happened. I already knew from the get-go that I didn’t think it was an accident. I believe his finger was on the trigger.”
Over pizza with Brittany, her mother, her stepfather, and her grandmother, I asked what would constitute justice for Tyler. Brittany paused. “I would want eye for eye,” she said. I paused. “You mean you want Brandon executed?” I asked. She nodded. “Brandon needs to be gone. I don’t think he should be able to live his life. That’s just my personal opinion.” I paused again and looked around the table. “Does everyone agree?” They all nodded. “And Jerry?” “He should have time for what he did,” said Lora. “He should probably sit inside for the rest of his life,” added Brittany. “He had a role in it, but he technically didn’t pull the trigger.” (In her capacity as the personal representative of Tyler’s estate, Lora has since filed suit against both Brandon and Jerry, seeking more than $25,000, according to the Sanilac County News.36)
I asked Lora if Jerry or Connie had ever reached out to them since Tyler was killed. She said they’d had no contact since Jerry’s girlfriend had come over, a few days after the shooting, to return Tyler’s effects. Would they have liked to hear from them? “It would have been nice for them to say something. Put a card in my mailbox or something. But no. Never heard a word from them.”
“Even at the court they could have turned around and said something,” said Janet. “Yeah, when he stood up in front of the judge and said it wasn’t his fault,” recalls Lora. “Well,” says Janet. “It wasn’t his fault because he wasn’t home.”
WHEN IT COMES TO protecting children around guns, parents are flawed and laws are clearly inadequate. But with occasional encouragement from government, technology has become more reliable. For well over a century, gun manufacturers have been working on weapons that would be difficult for children to misuse.
In 1887, Smith & Wesson produced the .38-caliber Safety Hammerless, followed two years later by the .32-caliber model. It had a metal lever at the back that the shooter had to push down with the base of the thumb as the forefinger pulled the trigger. This “New Departure” safety grip was designed specifically so that a young child’s hands would be too small to perform both functions at the same time. “One very important feature of this arrangement,” explained the catalog, “is the safety of the arm in the hands of children, as no ordinary child under eight years of age can possibly discharge it.”37
But more recent, sophisticated initiatives have attracted the wrath of the gun lobby. In 2000, after Bill Clinton announced a deal with Smith & Wesson that would include putting locks on handguns and implementing “smart-gun” technology, the NRA branded the company “the first gun maker to run up the white flag of surrender and duck behind the Clinton-Gore lines.”38 They called for a boycott of the company. Smith & Wesson eventually backed out of the deal.
The technology developed anyhow. There are now loading indicators that show whether a weapon is loaded and whether a round remains in the chamber. And smart guns have come a long way. The Armatix iP1—a stubby-looking handgun with a matte finish—doesn’t work without a watch, which is less a device for timekeeping than one for safety. Both watch and gun have electronic chips that communicate with each other. When the gun is less than ten inches from the watch, which needs a five-digit PIN before it can be activated, a light on the grip turns green, and it can fire. When it’s farther away from the watch, there’s no light and the gun can’t fire. In other words, the only person who can fire it is the person who has the watch and knows the PIN—which is likely to be the owner.39
In a tear-stained press conference, standing next to one of the fathers who’d lost a child at Sandy Hook, President Obama expressed his frustration that technology commercially available and acceptable for more mundane purposes couldn’t be put to use to ensure safety. “If we can develop technology that you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do it for guns?” he said. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull the trigger on a gun.”40
A range of versions of this kind of gun have been tested, including those that use voice recognition, grip recognition, fingerprints, and remote apps (through which you could disable the gun remotely). The benefits—in terms of making accidental shootings, suicides, and illegal gun transfers more difficult and rendering gun theft useless—are self-evident. So much so that in 2002, New Jersey passed a law stating that only smart guns would be able to be sold in the state within three years of a smart gun hitting the market anywhere in the country.41
The Armatix was the first to make it to the United States commercially. For a short while, it looked like that “anywhere” would be the Oak Tree Gun Club, one of California’s largest gun stores, located just outside Los Angeles. Briefly, it was the only outlet in America to stock them. “It could revolutionize the gun industry,” James Mitchell, the store’s owner, told the Washington Post.42
Nobody was claiming that smart guns would cure gun violence, but it was difficult to see how they could make anything worse. “If you have two cars, and one has an air bag and one doesn’t, are you going to buy the one without the air bag?” Belinda Padilla, president of Armatix’s US operation, told the Post. “It’s your choice, but why would you do that?”43
One reason would be if that choice didn’t exist. The NRA is extremely hostile to smart guns. They see them not as part of the safety agenda but as part of the antigun agenda. They oppose “government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire.” They “[recognize] that the ‘smart guns’ issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.”44 They are particularly keen to prevent New Jersey from leading the way in government’s demanding such technology.
Once news came out that Oak Tree would be stocking the Armatix iP1 gun, activists threatened a boycott of the store. Padilla was personally targeted. She received threatening messages after someone posted her cell phone number online. Someone else posted pictures of the address where she has a PO box, drew an arrow toward an image of a woman in the frame, and wrote, “Belinda? Is that you?” On Calguns.net, a California gun owner’s site, one person wrote, “I have no qualms with the idea of personally and professionally leveling the life of someone who has attempted to profit from disarming me and my fellow Americans.”45
The pressure was so intense that the store eventually eradicated all evidence it ever had a deal with Armatix. Advertising signs were taken down, clothes with logos were removed, the stall at the shooting range disappeared. There was no suggestion that the NRA was behind any of the threats.
Nonetheless, the New Jersey state senator who originally sponsored the bill to make smart guns the norm in her state offered a truce. She would drop the mandate if the NRA refused to stand in the way of the development and sale of smart guns. “I’m willing to do this because eventually these are the kinds of guns people will want to buy,” she said. The NRA was having none of it. “The NRA is interested in a full repeal of New Jersey’s misguided law,” Cox replied.46
Whether any of these laws and technological developments would have saved Tyler’s life we will never know. The US General Accounting Office has estimated that 31 percent of accidental deaths caused by firearms might be prevented by adding child-proof safety locks and loading indicators.47 People are flawed, and only so much can be expected from children in terms of personal responsibility. It is also important in these cases to make a distinction between an accident and negligence. What is clear is that none of these things would have done any harm, and almost all of them would have limited the odds of its happening.
TYLER’S FAMILY ARRIVED AT Sanilac County Courthouse for Jerry’s sentencing dressed for the occasion. Brittany wore a green hoodie with four different pictures of Tyler on the front and “Justice for Tyler” on the back. Lora wore a gray version without the pictures on the front. In the corridor outside the court, some sat and others stood. When they weren’t breaking the silence with chat and banter they paced aimless and somber circles across the marble floor.
Jerry arrived five minutes late, wearing a blue shirt with white stripes, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a black baseball cap for “Hercules Pumping and Concrete,” beneath which his lank gray hair hung down past his shoulder blades. He had brought a friend, dressed similarly, who took Jerry’s hat as Circuit Court Judge Donald Teeple called him forward. “Do you understand why you are here?” Teeple asked, explaining the charges. “Yes,” said Jerry. The judge asked his lawyer if she had anything to say. Acknowledging the “terrible incident” that had taken place, his lawyer explained, “There was no intent on [Jerry’s] part. It was an act of omission.” The judge then asked Jerry if he had anything to say.
“It was a very bad, tragic accident,” he said. “I wasn’t there. I didn’t do it. I was working.”
“But you did have guns in the house,” insisted the judge.
“Yes,” said Jerry.
“Well that’s how it happens. . . . This family has to live without their child for the rest of their lives.”
“I understand that,” said Jerry, his voice becoming less audible with each response.
“That’s about as bad as it gets.”
“Yes,” Jerry said, so faintly now it was more a murmur than a word.
The judge handed down the sentence—a year in jail—and as the room cleared Jerry was directed to sit in the jury area while an officer of the court collected the paperwork. Then, after Jerry had put one more signature to his incarceration, the infantilization of his new life began. He was no longer a free man. He stood and shook his head as the policeman asked if there was anything in his pockets, only to find some change in one of them. He took it out, reached over to his friend, and handed it to him. The patting down continued as he raised his arms. Then he stood with his hands in front as the cuffs went on. Right hand first. Click. Then left. Click. Then back to the jury chair while other paperwork was completed. It was 9:20 a.m. when he was escorted out of the empty courtroom into the hallway, hands cuffed before him. His friend, carrying two hats and his face wet with tears, walked behind. Jerry stepped into the elevator and was gone.