Nationally, number of people hurt in firearms accidents is flat. In Florida, it’s soaring.

Four incidents, one fatal, have been reported in Tampa Bay during the past three weeks. Says one gun instructor: ‘All four of those situations should have never happened.’
Ryan Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry in Brandon, displays three handguns similar to those involved in recent local accidental shootings: A Derringer, a Glock 19, and a Glock 23 similar to a Sig Sauer P320. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Ryan Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry in Brandon, displays three handguns similar to those involved in recent local accidental shootings: A Derringer, a Glock 19, and a Glock 23 similar to a Sig Sauer P320. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 17, 2019|Updated May 17, 2019

TAMPA — A wife's gun goes off in a Land O' Lakes Publix, hitting her husband in the leg. A construction worker accidentally shoots his friend working on a roof in Riverview. A Pasco deputy's service pistol discharges in a middle school.

Bullets have been flying inadvertently across the Tampa Bay area lately. At least four cases have made headlines since April 30, resulting in injury and — in the case of the roofer — death. On Wednesday, an off-duty police officer in Miami-Dade County accidentally shot a woman in a Publix when his gun fired in his pocket.

The number of people injured by accidental gunfire each year is rising in Florida, with 857 injuries in 2017, state data show. What’s more, with about 22 people a year killed in Florida, the state is bucking a nationwide trend toward a decline in accidental gunfire deaths.

READ MORE: He was shot while standing in line at Publix. But how? Here’s how Pasco deputies figured it out.

Accidental shootings exasperate gun control advocates and firearms safety experts alike. Both sides see the shootings as preventable if people follow basic rules.

"All four of those situations should have never happened," said Ryan Thomas, a veteran firearms instructor and owner of Tampa Carry. "Usually when I see stories like that, the first thing I think is it's a person with a lack of training or somebody who has been around firearms for so long they think the firearm rules simply don't apply to them because of how experienced they are."

• • •

In a country plagued by gun violence and more frequent mass shootings, a marked decline in deaths from accidental shootings stands as something of a bright spot.

Ryan Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry in Brandon, displays a Derringer like one involved in an accidental shooting at a Land O' Lakes Publix. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Ryan Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry in Brandon, displays a Derringer like one involved in an accidental shooting at a Land O' Lakes Publix. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

During the 18-year period ending in 2017, the number of people killed in the United States by unintentional gunfire dropped 41 percent to 486, according to a National Safety Council analysis of data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a decrease of about 41 percent.

The decline began in the 1980s, said Jon Vernick, co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

"We used to have way more than we have today, and it's not entirely clear among experts why that's happening," Vernick said.

Vernick and others point to a variety of factors, including a declining rate of guns in U.S. households, laws restricting gun access like one Florida passed in the 1980s, and a drop in the number of hunters.

"It's possible some of the gun safety laws and best practices, such as using gun safes and trigger locks and keeping firearms away from children, is paying off," said Ken Kolosh, a statistics manager for the National Safety Council.

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Many more people are injured than killed by accidental gunfire in the United States each year — 20,488 in 2017 — and the federal data shows that number has stayed relatively flat.

One trend is clear: The number of Floridians injured by accidental gunfire has increased dramatically in recent years.

In 2007, 471 Floridians went to the hospital with non-fatal accidental gunshot injuries, Florida Department of Health data shows. By 2017, the most recent year available, the number had climbed to 857, an 82 percent increase.

Ryan Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry in Brandon,  displays a Glock 19 similar to a weapon involved in an accidental discharge at a school cafeteria in Pasco County. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Ryan Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry in Brandon, displays a Glock 19 similar to a weapon involved in an accidental discharge at a school cafeteria in Pasco County. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

In the same period, the number of Floridians with a concealed carry permit quadrupled to nearly 1.8 million, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

It's harder to spot a trend in the number of Floridians killed by accidental gunfire each year. During the 18-year period ending in 2017, that figure has stayed in a range between 13 and 30, according to the centers for disease control. In total, 413 people died from unintentional gunshots during the period.

In Florida, applicants for concealed weapons permits must complete an approved training course that includes a "live-fire" portion at a range. The training is more than enough for gun owners to learn how to avoid accidental discharges, said Thomas, the Tampa Carry owner.

Guns should always be in attached holsters, where an individual can control them, he said. Purses are dangerous places for firearms because other people, including children, can get access to them. Gun carriers also should be diligent about making sure a weapon's safety mechanism is engaged.

State law does not include requirements for how concealed guns should be carried, such as in a holster with the safety mechanism engaged."We hammer gun safety in our courses, but we can't hold people's hands when they leave," he said. "Training doesn't protect you from a lack of common sense."

• • •

As children made their way through the cafeteria lunch line at Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel on April 30, a shot rang out.

It was a Pasco sheriff's deputy gun.

According to the Sheriff's Office, the school resource officer was leaning against a wall in the cafeteria when his Sig Sauer P320 discharged while still in its holster. A single round struck the brick wall behind him. No one was injured. The Sheriff's Office has not released the name of the deputy, and the incident was still under investigation this week.

Five days later, on May 5, Lillian Messier knocked her purse off the checkout counter at the Publix on Collier Parkway in Land O' Lakes. Her .38-caliber Derringer, loose in her purse, discharged, hitting husband Vernon Messier in the leg.

The next morning, a 51-year-old man accidentally shot himself in the hand the at Bayside Arbors Apartments in Clearwater, according to police. Few other details were released and a report on the incident hadn't been completed this week, a police spokesman said.

The Publix incident is a reminder people can carry guns legally in much of Florida.

Florida law prohibits licensed concealed permit holders from bringing guns into courthouses, schools and government meetings, among other places. There is also a prohibition against carrying guns in a business licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises, though there is some leeway. In businesses containing bars, such as restaurants, the law applies only to the portion of the business "primarily devoted" to alcohol consumption.

Businesses can post their own policies prohibiting patrons from bringing guns onto their property, and can ask rulebreakers to leave. Publix doesn't advertise such a prohibition but did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its policy.

One group pushing for stronger gun regulation has no objection if a businesses like Publix allows customers to legally carry concealed firearms.

Key to this position is that the state requires proper training and background checks before issuing a concealed-carry permit, said Kelly Moore, a volunteer with the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action.

But the recent shootings, especially the incident at Weightman Middle, bolster the argument that only trained security officers should be armed in schools, said Moore, a St. Petersburg mother of three. A new Florida law gives school districts the power to allow teachers to carry weapons.

"Accidents happen even with people who are giving their undivided attention to that job," she said. "If this kind of accident can happen with somebody doing just that one thing, I have a lot of concern about will happen when a teacher, who has a lot of divided attention, carries a firearm."

• • •

When a Pasco deputy came to interview her about the Publix shooting, Lillian Messer admitted she was worried.

She had a valid concealed carry permit, an incident report says, and she didn't mean to blow a hole clean through her husband's leg. But she told the deputy she feared she could be charged with a crime.

She wasn’t. Messier "did not have intent to cause harm to her husband,” the deputy wrote in the report. The case was classified as an accidental injury and closed.

But accidental gun discharges can result in criminal charges if prosecutors conclude there's evidence an individual was criminally negligent, said Susan Rozelle, a professor at Stetson University College of Law.

That's a high bar for prosecutors, Rozelle said.

"Even when a prosecutor is comfortable he or she can prove to a jury a crime happened with a culpable mental state, they may still feel that it's not in the best interest to bring the charge," she said.

Prosecutors look at the circumstances of the crime, the shooter’s criminal history and whether pursuing the case is a wise use of limited resources. They also consider whether charges would inflict more pain on someone suffering guilt and grief from shooting a loved one.

"There are decisions made to be merciful, and there are decisions made to be send a message," Rozelle said.

Pinellas County prosecutors chose to file charges after a gun went off in a car in St. Petersburg last year.

Jessica Perry, 21, was riding in the back seat when she accidentally fired a gun, police reported at the time. The round hit 17-year-old Destiny Loper, Perry’s friend, in the back, killing her.

Perry was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Few other details were released in the case. Perry is awaiting trial.

• • •

It remained unclear this week whether charges would be filed against the man whose gun discharged at the Riverview construction site, killing a coworker.

On May 8, the armed man, 43, was moving his gun from his waistband to his pocket as he got out of his truck when he tripped on some construction debris, Hillsborough sheriff's Major Frank Losat told reporters. The handgun discharged and the round struck and killed a man, 44, working on a roof.

The Sheriff's Office has not release either man's name or whether the armed man has a concealed carry permit. Losat said the incident appeared to be an accident, but the shooting remained under investigation.

Noting the Publix shooting days earlier, a reporter asked Losat what the public should know about carrying guns.

“There’s plenty of gun safety classes out there,” Losat said. “If you’re going to carry a gun, you need to be familiar with it, you need to know how to use it. Have the proper training to prevent accidents from happening.”