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Kelly L. Pittman
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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 2/29/16. Jimmy Skiles, center, speaks to family members as the Hamilton County Sheriff's Officers investigate the shooting death of a 3-year-old boy outside the home at 4724 Gates Lane. The boy, whose name has not been released, was taken to a local hospital on Monday, February 29, 2016, where he was pronounced dead, according to the sheriff's office.

TENNESSEE CHILD SHOOTING DEATHS, 2010-14

151 children shot to death

94 homicides

35 suicides

14 accidental shootings

8 undetermined

Source: Tennessee Department of Health Child Fatality Review Database

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An ambulance sits outside a home in Apison where a three-year-old boy was shot on Monday.
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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 2/29/16. Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Adams, strings up crime scene tape as the HCSO investigate the shooting death of a 3-year-old boy outside the home at 4724 Gates Lane. The boy, whose name has not been released, was taken to a local hospital on Monday, February 29, 2016, where he was pronounced dead, according to the sheriff's office.
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A three-year-old boy was shot in Apison, Tenn.

The mother of the 3-year-old boy who accidentally shot and killed himself on Feb. 29 could face between one and six years in prison for her son's death.

Kelly Pittman, 26, was arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide on Monday, one week after her son, Gavin Pittman, shot himself in the face with a .380-caliber pistol.

Investigators say Pittman was talking on her cellphone when she pulled her minivan into the family's driveway at 4724 Gates Lane in Apison at 9:18 a.m. on Feb. 29. She left three small children in the van and got out so she could continue her conversation, she told investigators with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

She said she heard a "pop" and realized Gavin had shot himself.

The 3-year-old had unbuckled his car seat, crawled to the front of the van, opened the unlocked glovebox, pulled out the loaded pistol that Pittman kept "for protection" and accidentally shot himself.

The bullet entered under his right eye.

Sheriff's detectives argue that Pittman is at fault in her son's death because she left Gavin without supervision and failed to secure the pistol, even though she knew Gavin was capable of letting himself out of his car seat.

Pittman is being held on a $500,000 bond. As she sat in jail Tuesday, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services confirmed the agency has been previously involved with the family during the last three years.

Rob Johnson said DCS is investigating Gavin's death and that the family's three other children are safe. They're staying with a friend who has been vetted by DCS, Johnson said. He did not elaborate on what sort of contact the family has had with DCS, or how frequently the agency has worked with the family.

The majority of children who die in Tennessee among allegations of neglect or abuse have a previous history with the Department of Children's Services, records show.

An internal DCS review of 133 child death cases in 2014 revealed that 117 children — 88 percent — had history with DCS.

Nationally, the families involved in child maltreatment homicides have a prior record with children's protection services in between a third and half of cases, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

And each year, about 1,100 children die in cases in which their parents later are criminally charged, Finkelhor said. But the majority of those cases don't involve firearms — they tend to involve cases of abuse or chronic neglect.

He said cases where a child is accidentally shot are inherently political.

"I think the prosecution may have a hard time, in Tennessee, making that [charge] stick," he said. "It depends on a lot of things. But you know, if the gun were left out in the open, that would have been a different scenario, and if the mother was very clearly inattentive about it, that would make a difference. But on the other hand, when a child dies, there is an impulse to want to hold someone responsible."

In the Chattanooga region, parents have been criminally charged in a handful of child deaths in recent years. In 2012, Leland Bates, 5, and River Bates, 3, died from overheating after they were left inside a hot car in Bradley County. Their mother, Tasha Bates, was later convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and given two life sentences.

And in 2014, Tatiana Emerson, 3, and Dakota Arnt, 3, were beaten to death within days of each other in separate incidents in Hamilton County.

In both toddlers' cases, authorities initially charged the mothers' boyfriends with the assaults, but then later also charged the mothers with aggravated child endangerment. Prosecutors argued both women knew about the abuse and failed to stop it.

The charge against Dakota's mother was dismissed in January. The case against Tatiana's mother is still pending.

Both toddlers had been visited by DCS before their deaths.

Children's Services workers last checked on Tatiana's family and concluded all was well a month before Tatiana died on Aug. 27, 2014. Dakota died two days after Tatiana — and DCS workers had checked on him about three months earlier.

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In Tennessee, 151 children were shot and killed in the five-year span between 2010 and 2014, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's Child Fatality Review Database.

Of those deaths, only 14 were classified as accidents. The majority — 94 — were homicides, followed by 35 suicides. In eight cases, the motivation was undetermined.

There's no federal database to track the number of children who are accidentally shot in the United States. But in 2015, researchers at the University of Vermont analyzed data from 16 states and estimated about 110 children aged 14 or younger were accidentally shot each year between 2005 and 2012.

Whether or not parents are criminally charged in such cases varies dramatically, said Beth Joslin Roth, policy director for the Safe Tennessee Project.

"There doesn't seem to be any consistent rhyme or reason for when charges are brought or they're not," she said. "There are instances when someone will be charged with reckless endangerment or criminally negligent homicide, but the other times it's reported as a tragic accident. The problem is there seems to be some ambiguity about when charges are brought."

Roth is advocating to pass a new state law that would create criminal penalties for adults who recklessly leave, place or store a gun in plain view or somewhere readily accessible to a child under 13.

It would not apply if the gun has a trigger lock or similar device or is being stored in a locked cabinet or secure container accessible only by the owner or the owner's spouse.

An adult would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor if a child under 13 manages to obtain a gun under those circumstances but does not fire it or allow someone else to fire it. Adults face a class E felony if the child fires the gun or permits another person to and someone is wounded. If the discharge results in a death, it's a Class C felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Roth said the bill, which is due for another vote on March 15, is intended to address the "cases we see over and over and over again."

In January, a 7-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the head in Crossville, Tenn., after he was left alone in a vehicle with three other children. In that case, one child found a loaded, semi-automatic pistol inside a purse.

"[Gavin's case] seems, sadly, pretty typical," Roth said.

Trentyn Murrell, a sales associate at Shooter's Depot in Chattanooga, said such a law makes sense to him, and added that people who have children need to be extra careful about securing their firearms. In some situations, he said, keeping a gun in a car's glovebox may be safe.

"I'm in my 20s, I have my carry permit, I do not have children," he said. "It's just me or my wife who drive my car. For someone like me, yes, having it in the glovebox is perfectly safe. Once you throw children in the mix — or anyone who is not normally in your vehicle — that's when it becomes unsafe."

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.

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