Bernice Rapier cannot shake the bloody image from her mind.
Late Monday afternoon, the 72-year-old heard her neighbor screaming and ran to the house at 2008 Tinsley Place. When she went in, she found 2-year-old Camron Michelle Dawn Wallace in a pool of her own blood on the bedroom floor after being shot through the chest.
"I will not get that picture out of my mind - the way that baby looked laying there still, lifeless, cold," she said. "There was so much blood on her hands and legs. You couldnH't even tell where she had been shot. I only touched her face, but I knew she was gone before she even got to the hospital. She was so cold."
Ms. Rapier said the mother told her Camron's 6-year-old stepbrother fired the shot. Police have said the girl was shot after the two children gained access to a gun. The boy is not identified by name in accordance with Times Free Press policy.
After Camron was shot, her mother, Samantha Wallace, ran screaming into the street, calling her husband, Thomas Wallace, who works at Haynes & Haynes tire store, located about 100 yards away on South Hawthorne Street, Ms. Rapier recalled.
Mr. Wallace ran home to see Camron bloodied and unresponsive before he ran outside and collapsed on the sidewalk, crying into his hands, Ms. Rapier said.
"It was an accident, and now that little boy is going to have to live with this for the rest of his life," Ms. Rapier said. "A bullet like that could have killed an adult. That baby didn't stand a chance."
Chattanooga police continue to investigate the "unique nature" of the shooting and, as of Tuesday evening, had not charged either of the parents with a crime.
In the death of Camron, whoever is responsible for a child can face legal consequences "if the person left the gun around, knew the children were in the proximity of the gun," said John Cavett, a local criminal defense attorney.
"At the very least the person could be charged with reckless endangerment," he said.
Reckless endangerment is a felony if it involves a dangerous weapon.
In his experience, however, law enforcement often is reluctant to press charges against a parent who has just lost a child, Mr. Cavett said.
"My guess is there could be some small degree of hesitancy in a case like that," he said.
Mostly, the court wants to prevent a behavior from recurring, he said.
"In that sense, you would think that a parent might not need to be punished," Mr. Cavett said. "Not because they feel sorry for them but because they've suffered enough."
But there are a lot of unknown factors in this case, Mr. Cavett said.
"There have been people prosecuted for not having their child in a child restraint and they get in a wreck and the child is killed," he said.
In an unrelated incident, Mrs. Wallace pleaded guilty to simple assault in Sequatchie County Criminal Court for an incident last December in which she grabbed a 16-year-old girl by the hair and "punched her in the face," court documents show.
Larger problem of safety
The most recent numbers available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, in 2006, nearly 3,200 adolescents and teenagers died from gunfire. Sixty-three of the victims were under the age of five.
From 2000 to 2005, there were two children under the age of five killed from accidental gunshots in Tennessee, four in Georgia and six in Alabama, according to Common Sense About Kids and Guns, a Washington D.C.-based gun advocacy group.
A shortage of laws addressing gun storage and children is part of the problem along with the proper education of gun owners, said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
"We have almost no laws on the books to protect kids in homes with firearms," Mr. Everitt said.
Devices such as trigger locks and gun safes, along with practices such as keeping ammunition separate from a weapon and educating children on gun safety, all are steps gun owners should take, he said.
In Tennessee, it's illegal "knowingly or recklessly to provide a handgun" to a juvenile. A search of the Tennessee code did not yield any other laws on gun storage or children and guns.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997 noted that "unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23 percent" among children under 15 years in the 12 states where such laws had been in effect for at least a year.
Carl Poston, owner of Sportsman's Supply and Services in Hixson, said all new guns sold come with a trigger lock and buyers are informed how properly to store firearms.
There is no mandatory safety training to buy or own a firearm in Tennessee, but part of the concealed handgun carry permit course covers safe storage practices, Mr. Poston said.
"Most people are very responsible, they read the owner's manual," he said.
Responsibility is key with firearms possession, he said.
"It's just like a car or anything else, if you're irresponsible with a car, you're going to hurt someone," he said.
Without therapy, the boy believed to be responsible for the shooting could "stay stuck in that situation," which could impact his whole life, said John Morrison, program manager for the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.
The center offers trauma training to help those involved in such events, he said.
Keys to helping the child are educating the parents and others on the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and building a strong network of support for all involved, he said.
"With the little boy, if he's feeling that he caused it, that guilt will keep him from working through the grief," Mr. Morrison said.
The parents must work on their own feelings about what happened, caring for each other and their remaining children, he said. A support network can assist, listen, ask if they can help or "just be there as a shoulder to cry on," Mr. Morrison said.
If the parents face legal troubles with what happened, it can compound the problem, he said, making them reluctant to talk for fear their records will be subpoenaed for any possible case.
Picking up the pieces
Bob Haynes, owner of Haynes & Haynes tire center and of the house where Mr. Wallace lived with his family, remembers "happy-go-lucky" children playing in their yard. Mr. Wallace has worked for Mr. Haynes for more than three years, and Mr. Haynes remembers when Camron was born.
Mr. Haynes also said that Mr. Wallace was a deer hunter and an excellent father.
"He would often take the boy into the woods with him," Mr. Haynes said. "He had already talked with the boy about the proper use of guns."
Mr. Haynes was at the house early Tuesday morning to tear up the bloodied carpet, clean the house and replace the damaged furniture, he said. He had been talking to the Wallaces over a company-owned cell phone while they stayed with family in Whitwell, Tenn., he said.
He said the boy might have been told about gun safety but, being so young, still didn't understand the danger.
"I think he might have fired the weapon and not even known what the end result would be," he said.
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