Eleven-year-old AJ Nicholson went to his cousin’s house on March 12, 2014, when the Kent City School District was closed for a snow day. Sometime between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m., AJ’s cousin accessed his parents’ guns to show AJ.
“These guns were not locked up as well as the ammunition,” Joe Nicholson, AJ’s dad and Kent resident, said.
As AJ’s cousin put one gun away, he accidentally pulled the trigger. AJ was killed instantly.
“AJ was a great kid. He had the potential to become an amazing person,” Nicholson said. “He was so kind and generous for a child his age.”
According to the National Safety Council Injury Facts 2013 Edition, the number of unintentional firearm-related fatalities involving children under 14 years of age has decreased by 28 percent over the last decade.
Despite the decline, however, gun supporters and anti-gun violence activists debate the need for stricter regulations on a child’s ability to access a firearm. Organizations like Project ChildSafe, a nationwide firearms safety advocacy program, and House Bill 31, a pending gun regulation in the Ohio legislature, address the issue.
Sgt. Rich Soika of the Kent Police Department met AJ at the 2013 Kent Heritage Festival. At 10 years old, AJ knew he wanted to get a criminal justice degree from Kent State and become a member of the SWAT team, Nicholson said.
So when AJ saw Soika showing community members a SWAT vehicle, he was excited to participate.
At this year’s Heritage Festival, Nicholson saw the SWAT display again and remembered Soika’s interaction with his late son and gave Soika a photo of AJ wearing the SWAT gear the previous year. After hearing what happened to AJ, Soika asked Nicholson’s permission to use AJ’s name and story to promote Project ChildSafe, Nicholson said.
On July 14, Soika posted a message on the Kent Police Department’s website to “revitalize” the promotion of the program, with which the department had been in partnership for a few years, and spread AJ’s story. Soika said he has been a police officer for 16 years and has responded to numerous accidental shooting calls.
“This past weekend while working the annual City of Kent Heritage Fest at the Metro SWAT display, I was reminded of a young man I had the pleasure of meeting the previous year,” Soika wrote. “This young man was bright, articulate, funny, and full of life and a pleasure to be around. His name is Ashton “AJ” Nicholson. This year I was unable to visit with AJ because on March 12, 2014, he was accidentally shot and subsequently passed away…The accident that took AJ’s life may have possibly been prevented with some basic firearm safety and responsibility. The encounter with AJ’s father motivated me to promote a program in which the City of Kent Police Department participates.”
Project ChildSafe was developed and is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It advocates for firearm safety by distributing free safety kits that include a cable-style gun lock and brochure that explains safe storage techniques. The organization partners with approximately 15,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, said Bill Brassard, senior director of communications for the NSSF.
Support for gun regulations, pending legislation
Because Project ChildSafe is sponsored by the NSSF, however, the public should be cautious about how it perceives the organization’s child safety message, said Toby Hoover, founder of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, a non-profit organization that seeks to prevent gun violence through “sensible solutions,” such as opposing concealed carry.
“Because it’s spearheaded by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, we should take that very narrowly. Focusing on sports, that’s one thing, but they also have an advocacy and policy side to them, and they object to any kind of reasonable gun laws,” Hoover said. “So, it’s a little misleading that they’re only about child safety. Then, it becomes a matter of their encouraging gun ownership by saying, ‘Well, we want you to be safe with them.’ That’s a culture question. We have to decide: Is that really what we want?”
The OCAGV does not oppose the right to own guns – rather, it advocates for safer policies such as increased, more thorough background checks and legislation to reduce the amount of firearms in communities, Hoover said.
Project ChildSafe receives funding from the firearms industry that allows it to distribute more than 200,000 safety kits per year, and current demand for the program’s safety kits exceeds the program’s supply by four to one, Brassard said.
Despite the decline in unintentional firearm-related fatalities in children, however, some, such as the OCAGV and Ohio Rep. Bill Patmon, support stricter regulations on a child’s ability to access a firearm.
On Feb. 5, 2013, Patmon introduced House Bill 31. If passed, this law would prohibit people from storing a firearm in their residence without securing it in safe storage or making it inoperable with a tamper-resistant lock if the person knows, or reasonably should know, a minor could gain access to it.
“What inspired me about the gun law was the incidents of children being shot, from Sandy Hook to Cleveland to the Chardon incident, and I began to wonder what to do about it, what could we do? Well, we make laws, and we need a law that would have impact on these incidents,” Patmon said. “So, I started to look at all the incidents and each one of them, or the great majority of them, were perpetrated by people who could not walk into a store and buy a gun. So, maybe safely storing the gun and not encroaching on anybody’s right to have one, or their constitutional rights, might be the answer.”
The bill was assigned to the the State and Local Government Committee in 2013 and has not moved since.
“If the leadership were willing, it could happen in a couple days here,” Patmon said. “All that can happen very quickly depending on how people favor the bill.”
HB 31 has significant outside support from national organizations and local coalitions like the OCAGV, but there are a number of gun advocates who currently serve in the legislature who don’t think the bill is an effective law, Patmon said.
“The people who speak the loudest end up usually getting their way,” Patmon said. “So, the folks that are pro-HB 31 are gaining momentum.”
Hoover said the bill did go through hearings in the State and Local Government Committee, during which parents who lost children testified, including a father whose son was killed at Sandy Hook, as well as law enforcement and church groups in support of the bill.
“The bill is just hanging there right now,” Hoover said. “I don’t know if there’s any possibility of movement before the end of the year. All I’ll say is if they wanted it to happen, they could make it happen rather quickly.”
Hoover said the bill should be passed because there is no excuse for a child to have access to firearms.
“We need to demand that. We all have children visiting other homes where there are gun owners, and it needs to be insisted upon,” Hoover said. “I don’t think there are any accidents. These incidents can be prevented. They may sometimes be unintentional, but they can be prevented.”
Chad Baus, secretary for the Buckeye Firearms Association (BFA) said the bill would potentially infringe upon his Second Amendment right. The BFA is a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the right to bear arms.
- Successfully pass out of the State and Local Government Committeee
- Proceed and successfully pass out of the Rules and Reference Committee
- Pass voting in the Ohio House of Representatives
- Pass voting in the Ohio Senate
- Proceed to Gov. Kasich's desk for signature into law
“The words ‘shall not be infringed’ are in there for a reason,” Baus said. “Mandating that someone lock up their firearm, which they need quick access to in the event of an emergency, is infringement that could get you killed. A home invader isn’t going to give you time to say, ‘Wait a minute, I need to get my gun unlocked.’”
HB 31 is not beneficial because it depends on a person to be responsible to follow the law, and irresponsible people will not change their behavior because of this law, Baus said.
Baus also said the bill is based on myths. He cited a 2000 Yale School of Law study that found no support for the claim that safe storage laws reduce juvenile accidental gun deaths or suicides and that they impair gun owners’ ability to use guns defensively.
“It is a myth that safe storage laws protect people. It is also a myth that more children are hurt by guns than by any other means, and it’s a myth that if it saves the life of one child, it is worth it,” Baus said. “Firearms in private hands are used anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand times each day in our country to prevent crime, so the number of innocent children protected by firearm owning parents far outweighs the number of children harmed.”
Instead of a gun lock requirement, Baus said increased gun education will decrease accidental child injuries or deaths.
“The ultimate responsibility for teaching children what to do if they find a gun rests with parents,” Baus said. “Teaching children what to do if they find a gun is no different than teaching a child that ovens should always be considered hot.”
Since AJ’s death, his parents have started a foundation in his honor called The AJ Way that promotes AJ’s selfless manner he presented in his short life.
“The main goal was to try and keep our son’s memory alive,” Nicholson said. “We are devastated that he is gone, and we will never get to see what he would have become. The AJ Way is something we created so that people would not only hear about our wonderful son, but that they would want to spread kindness. Something good must come from this tragedy.”
Nicholson said he still believes in the right to own a gun, but his views on gun safety are more stringent.
“We aren’t against guns, but we never wanted them in our home,” Nicholson said. “Our mistake was not asking the owners of the home [AJ] would be in if they owned guns and if they were locked up properly. We have since made a choice to always ask if homeowners own a gun and ask how it is locked before our children go to anyone’s home. If AJ would have walked out of that room, he’d still be alive.”
Contact Christina Bucciere at email@example.com.