Ashlyn Melton wasn’t worried when her 13-year-old son Noah went to a sleepover at his best friend’s house in December 2011.
But a post-midnight phone call changed everything. Her ex-husband was on the line, relaying second- and thirdhand messages that sent Melton racing to the friend’s house. There, she was met by police who told her Noah had been fatally shot.
Initially, she thought they had been robbed, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, the other boy had picked up one of four unsecured guns in his room, and, not knowing it was loaded, shot Noah, who died on the scene.
The sudden loss propelled Melton, a 42-year-old bank loan officer in Plaquemine, Louisiana, on an unfathomable journey from grief to forgiveness as she struggled to understand what happened and why. Along the way, she found the strength to sound a warning to other parents: Guns and ammo in the home should be secured.
“It’s brushed off, like, oh, that was just an accident,” she says. “But people don’t realize how often it happens.”
Most kids under 18 killed unintentionally by firearms are shot by those their own age, most often during play, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which in its latest tally counted 82 such deaths between 2012 and 2014.
Together with the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics, Melton now promotes the ASK Campaign — Asking Saves Kids — urging parents to ask if there are any unlocked guns in homes where their children play.
“If we change behaviors of gun owners,” says the Brady Campaign’s Kris Brown, who will highlight the initiative at a Nov. 9 gala in New York City, “we will save lives.”
Adds Dr. Claire McCarthy of Boston Children’s Hospital: “People make this politically charged, but for me as a pediatrician, it’s a common-sense safety recommendation.”
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Drivers have been educated to wear seat belts and secure toddlers in child-safety seats, McCarthy says. “I talk about cars, and I talk about covering electrical outlets, and I talk about using gates across your stairs,” she says. “This is a public health issue. I want my patients to grow up,” she says. “The most simple recommendation we can make is to lock up guns and lock up ammunition separately.”
Melton says she had to work through the blame she initially placed on the other boy, who was 15 at the time. He later pleaded guilty in juvenile court to unintentional negligence and was placed on five years’ probation, she says.
“This boy was very respectful,” Melton says. “The parents were very respectful. I knew the boy had a little more freedom than Noah, but in my mind, that’s like, ‘Oh, this boy can ride his bike to McDonald’s,’ and Noah was not allowed to ride that far. That was the difference in the two households. I was never really concerned about Noah going to this little boy’s house. They were always together.”
“So when I heard that he had these four guns in his room, I’m thinking, OK, whose momma lets them do this?”
She hopes her voice can help change laws to make parents accountable in such incidents as well. But she insists she’s not trying to take away anyone’s guns. She’s a gun owner herself, and says Noah — her “cuddle-and-snuggle baby,” who had a quick wit and loved jokes — was raised respecting generational traditions of hunting and shooting in her family.
“I keep telling Noah’s story because it doesn’t matter what Noah knew, it doesn’t matter that Noah had been hunting since he was 3, it doesn’t matter that Noah wouldn’t have done it,” she says. “It matters that because somebody else wasn’t taking care of this other child and keeping their kids safe, mine died.”
“I can’t change what happened,” she says. “But keeping the guns in a cabinet or drawer locked from children just seems like a pretty common-sense thing to do.”