The boy who accidentally killed his sister

Sean Smith, 10, with his sister Erin, 8, at home on June 4, 1989,” the day before her death. Courtesy of Lee Smith

NPR had an odd disclaimer this morning when introducing its StoryCorps segment, the in-their-own words feature in which people tell their own story.

“Some may find the graphic material in this post disturbing,” the editor’s note on its website says.

Well, of course. They’re supposed to find it disturbing. It’s the story of a boy who found his father’s gun and accidentally shot his sister to death.

“A warning before we play this tape,” a similar statement on the radio said today. “It is graphic.”

The last thing news organizations should be doing is warning people away from the story.

So here. It’s disturbing. And that’s why you should listen to it.

We hear these stories all the time. Some child found a father’s gun and accidentally kills a sibling. “That’s awful,” we say and go on with our lives. We never hear whatever happened to the child. Now we have. It’s not pretty. And it’s not something to turn away from.

There’s a postscript to this story, reported in The Trace last October.

The shooting death of Erin Smith made a brief mark on Florida history. In the week following her death, four more children were involved in unintentional shootings across the state. Three of the shootings were fatal. In the fourth, a six-year-old boy shot his three-year-old sister, paralyzing her for life. The events of that week and the constant drumbeat from the press were enough for the Florida legislature, which was already adjourned for the year, to go into special session to pass a law that would make it illegal to leave a gun un-stored and unsecured where a child could find it.

The law had been pending for two years, written and championed after an earlier tragedy. Nine-year-old David Berger was killed in Florida in 1987 when his friend, also nine, found a rifle under his bed, picked it up to play, pointed it at David, and shot him in the face. His parents, Bill and Susan Berger had been enraged — are still enraged — that there were no consequences for the other boy’s parents. The family had been allowed to leave the state after David’s death; the local police said there was no way they could press charges. “What we were faced with was that we were told that there’s no wrongdoing at all, that it was just a normal occurrence of everyday life that somebody could leave a loaded gun around a child,” Susan Berger says. Politically savvy and relentless, they helped write the law and secured support from their local state congressman, Harry Jennings, a Republican. The law made adults criminally liable when children were involved in these types of shootings. It helped the Bergers to have something to champion in the wake of their grief, a target at which to direct and channel their anger. “Harry Jennings did say to us: ‘I’m sure David has saved a lot of lives.’ I know that he has,” Susan Berger says.

The story, which provides more details of the Smith killing, asks a fascinating question: Should Smith’s parents have been prosecuted?

“It would have torn us apart,” Sean Smith says.

But the writer suggests it would have allowed the family to be angry at the court system instead of themselves.