After keeping her experience a secret for years, a gunshot victim is advocating for legislation that would encourage people to safely store their guns.
Liz Hjelmseth was 8 years old when she woke up from a medically-induced coma.
Her mother told her she had been shot by her 16-year-old brother, and it was an accident. He was playing with a gun he didn’t know was loaded, and it misfired.
In that moment, Hjelmseth vowed to protect her brother and to never reveal what really happened.
It was no accident.
On Halloween night in 1972, Hjelmseth was arguing with her 16-year-old brother over her cat. Her brother grabbed a loaded rifle from the hall closet, pointed it at Hjelmseth and shot her. She believes he was trying to kill her.
Today, Hjelmseth is a gun owner and strong supporter of the second amendment, but she advocates for responsible gun ownership. Hjelmseth has been fighting for tougher gun storage laws. In 2015, she testified in Olympia for House Bill 1857 for extreme risk protection orders and child access prevention legislation.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders is now law in Washington, but Child Access Prevention, and similar legislation, has failed for the past five years. That includes House Bill 1122, Dangerous Access Prevention, which failed in the current 2017 legislative session. HB 1122 would have made it a crime if someone unsafely stored a gun and it was later used by a child or someone else to cause death or injury.
Hjelmseth believes her story is not unique, and probably far more common that many people like to think.
In Washington state, 158 children under 18 years old were hospitalized, and 108 children died as a result of guns from 2010 to 2014, according to the King County Department of Public Health. In 2013, an estimated 64,000 adults in King County with a loaded gun in or around their homes reported storing them loaded and unlocked.
In 2014, suicide and homicide were the second and third leading causes of death, respectively, among teens 15 to 19 years old after unintentional injury, according to Child Trends. Firearms were the instrument of death in 88 percent of these teen homicides and 41 percent of teen suicides.
Phil Watson, a legislative advocate with Firearms Policy Coalition, wrote a letter to lawmakers opposing HB 1122.
“It would punish or penalize a homeowner with up to five years in prison, even if your home was locked safe and secured,” said Watson. “If a criminal gets into your home and accesses it (your gun) without your permission, you could be thrown in jail for five years, and we think that's just wrong."
He also says under that bill, parents could face up to five years in prison if their child gets a hold of their gun and commits suicide.
Watson is concerned that any gun storage law would make it difficult for someone who is older or disabled to be able to access their firearm if they needed protection from an intruder.