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Professor Jennifer Collins weighs in on complicated scenarios of child gun deaths

Two-year-old Brennan Nowell is locked in his loved ones’ minds as the “smiling, blue-eyed angel that absorbed life and loved all around him.”

Cassie Culpepper, 11, “loved animals, horseback riding and spending time with her family.”

Kydalynn Graham, 3, was “the bright and shining light” of her mother, grandparents and friends.

The same tenors of grief, sudden loss and fierce familial love ring through the obituaries of the three local children who died last year in firearms accidents.

For some, the grief may seem like enough punishment for these families.

But in each of these cases and others like them, prosecutors and grand juries are faced with the grim task of deciding whether to prosecute caregivers of the slain children for possible negligence or reckless endangerment.

Prosecutors say it is hard to generalize how these cases are handled, because each must be dealt with according to its specific circumstances.

The three accidental child shooting cases that occurred locally last year have taken starkly divergent paths since reaching the court system.

In one case, a whole family has been prosecuted in the death of a 3-year-old Bradley County, Tenn., girl who accidentally shot herself. In another case, prosecutors decided not to pursue a case against a 12-year-old Ringgold, Ga., boy who accidentally shot his 11-year-old sister to death June 1 while the two rode in the back of their family’s pickup truck.

The most recent death, that of 2-year-old Brennan Nowell, who apparently accidentally shot himself in the Harrison home of his grandparents on Dec. 20, is still under investigation. A medical examiner’s report analyzing the death has been completed but is being withheld from public release by request of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.

“These are incredibly different, complex and painful cases,” said Jennifer Collins, a professor of law at Wake Forest University and a former prosecutor in Washington, D.C., who has written about prosecutions in child negligence deaths.

Every day, one of the 85 Americans killed by gunfire is younger than 15, according to Bloomberg News. Since 2005, 366 children under 15 have died in accidental firearms incidents, reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. The South leads the nation in such deaths, the CDC statistics show.

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