HARTSVILLE, IND. — A 6-year-old boy, playing in a house littered with toy guns Sunday, picked up a loaded .38-caliber revolver and accidentally shot and killed his father.
Moments later, neighbors saw the child running barefoot and screaming in the front yard.
“I didn’t mean to!” he said. “I’m sorry! It was an accident!”
Neighbor Tracee Heslop, seeing the distraught boy, brought over a blanket and wrapped him in her arms. She didn’t know what else to do, so she prayed.
“Your daddy’s going to be OK,” Heslop recalled telling him. He was sobbing when sheriff’s deputies and paramedics arrived around 9:15 p.m. He wrapped his arms around their legs, trying to hug them.
“I didn’t know,” he told them. “I’m sorry.”
James Lonaker, 62, was sitting at his desk Sunday night and did not see his son pick up the handgun, which was lying on either a table or a mini refrigerator in the same room, according to the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department. Authorities did not release the boy’s first name.
The boy’s mother was in the house in Hartsville, Indiana, which is about an hour east of Bloomington, with her 1-year-old son when she heard a “pop.”
Lonaker, shot once in the upper chest, spoke to family and neighbors who rushed to help him. He was alert enough that they thought he would survive as emergency workers loaded him into a medical helicopter. But he died en route to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said he has heard too many cases of children picking up a loaded gun and accidentally shooting themselves or others. The story is getting old, he said.
“This tragedy has been told again and again,” Myers said. “Please keep your guns in a secure location.”
Spare gun locks, issued by the federal government to promote gun safety, sit in Myers’ office. In an interview with the Indiana Daily Student, he used his own .38-caliber revolver to demonstrate how easy it is to wrap the thick wire of the gun lock through the opened cylinder.
Downstairs by the front desk, there is a box of gun locks. They are free, but the box is nearly full. Not enough people are picking them up, Myers said.
“It’s sad to say, but I’m surprised we don’t have more of this,” Myers said
Gun safety education has been a priority in his county. In 2015, 521 gun permits were issued in Bartholomew County. The number of gun permits issued has risen dramatically during the past few years. People are carrying guns more now than ever before, Myers said.
An increase in national mass shootings and anticipation of tighter gun reform may be why so many more people are buying and registering guns, Myers said.
The sheriff said he hopes gun owners take Lonaker’s tragedy to heart.
“We as adults have to practice proper storage,” Myers said. “It’s easy to set a gun down and forget about it. Those are costly mistakes.”
When the deputies walked inside the yellow house on Clinton Street, they noticed the toy guns lying around the room.
“Kids are just curious,” Myers said. “Kind of in the way grown-ups are that way about guns.”
Myers said he does not plan to charge anyone in the Lonaker family with a crime. The Department of Child Services has been notified.
When Myers learned about the shooting, he thought about the boy, how he’ll be devastated by this tragedy for the rest of his life. Then Myers said he thought about his own children. He has three sons, 8, 10 and 12 years old. They’re fascinated by their toy guns.
When he got home from work Monday, Myers told his sons about what had happened to Lonaker, even though it was difficult.
The sheriff struggled with his words but ultimately emphasized just how deadly and lethal their own father’s guns are.
“Of course, they had a lot of questions,” Myers said. “I just tried to tell them, ‘Once a bullet leaves a gun, it’s gone.’”