Why the Father Who Accidentally Fatally Shot His 14-Year-Old Son Refuses to Blame Guns
"My children will get more hugs and kisses," says Clayton Brumby
July 3 was shaping up as a typical Sunday – one that over time becomes nothing more than a faint memory.
Clayton Brumby, his wife Elizabeth, and their seven children went to church and had a few hours to spare before they were expected at a friend’s house for dinner that night.
“I said, ‘Hey guys, do you want to go to the range?'” Clayton, 64, recalls. “I had a new trigger on my pistol so we went to go check it out.”
They set up in the far lane at High Noon Gun Range in Sarasota, Florida, and with three of his kids, Christen, 12, David, 24 and Stephen, 14, they all took turns shooting Clayton’s .22 caliber-semi-automatic pistol.
After Clayton fired a round, the hot shell casing struck the wall, causing it to deflect and fall down the back of his shirt. When he reflexively reached back to get it out, his gun, which he had inadvertently pointed behind his back, went off.
Clayton, who first thought the bullet went straight up, quickly came to the horrific realization that the bullet had hit Stephen directly in the neck.
“David said, ‘Dad, Stephen’s been shot,'” says Brumby in an exclusive interview in this week’s PEOPLE. “I turned around and [Stephen’s] looking at me in a state of shock. I see where the wound is and I know this isn’t good. I tried to get him out of the range and he doesn’t make it out.”
Stephen, rushed to the hospital in an ambulance after collapsing and losing consciousness, died at 4:50 p.m. at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
His Final Moments
Exactly one week after his death, the Brumbys sat down with PEOPLE at their three-bedroom home in Sarasota, Florida, and opened up about their double family tragedy – the cherished son’s death and father’s responsibility for it.
While Clayton was at the gun range sitting with his 12-year-old daughter Christen, who, he says, “had just gone through the most horrific thing any 12-year-old could imagine,” he kept wondering how he would ever tell Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth, 50, had just put a cake in the oven and was at home taking a short nap when she got a phone call from David saying that Stephen had been shot. She raced to the hospital and was able to be with him for his last minutes on earth.
“It was absolutely surreal,” she says, followed by a long pause. “There were people all over the room, Stevie on the table, tubes in his mouth. It was just an out of body experience. It was inconceivable that this kid who lived so huge was lifeless on the table,” she says.
Elizabeth crawled onto the table for his last moments. “I just loved my boy,” she says.
For more on the Brumby family’s tragedy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
‘I Own This’
Clayton, who keeps a gun in his home, says that every gun owner has a responsibility.
“Every round that is in your gun has your name on it,” he says. “You’re responsible for the round whether it goes off if you intended or didn’t intend for it to.”
When the shell casing fell down his shirt, Clayton simply reacted without thinking.
“My son is dead as a consequence,” he says. “I know what happened and I will carry that for the rest of my life. I own this. I wake up in the morning and my very first waking thought is that my son is gone in my hand. I don’t know if a father could carry anything worse than that.”
But Elizabeth, 50, who has no anger towards her husband, says it was simply a “horrific accident.”
“He was just trying to have fun with his boy,” she says. “He was safe. He was careful. He was always careful. You can’t prepare for something burning hot to fall down your shirt.”
The weekend after Stephen’s death, Clayton, Elizabeth and their children David, Alexis, 23, Sam, 18, Christen, 12, Thomas, 11, and Jordan, 9, were at home surrounded by their closest friends.
They cried, laughed, held hands and told stories about “Stevie,” a rambunctious teenager who could play a song on the piano after just hearing it once and ace a test without having to study.
“There was no one in this family that was brighter,” says Clayton, “and we have seven bright children.”
Stephen, who Elizabeth says was “fourteen years of an utter gift,” was the first name out of Elizabeth’s mouth if she needed help around the house.
“We knew he’d be a world changer because he changed the world here,” she says.
Adds Clayton: “We always thought that at the end of the day when he became an adult he’d be the one to open up the orphanage in Romania.”
Stephen’s drawings hang on the walls, his clothing sits untouched in his closet, and his bow and arrow now hangs in the living room.
A few days after he died, David, Sam and Thomas went to play tennis. The only thing missing was their fourth – Stephen.
“Our kids were and still are so close,” says Elizabeth. “There is a major void now.”
Clayton and Elizabeth are determined to find the silver lining in their catastrophic loss. Since the accident, Clayton has talked to the gun range about softening the wall where a bullet might ricochet so instead bullets would fall to the floor. They also want to make sure that gun training includes how to handle distractions.
“They told me it’s now going to be addressed,” he says of the gun range staff.
Exactly one week to the minute after he died at 4:50 p.m., the Brumbys stand in a circle, hold each others’ hands and pray. “We love you Stevie,” they say a few times. “We miss you so much.”
(A GoFundMe page has been launched to help the family with funeral and other expenses.)