Generally speaking, I try not to be controversial on my blog but last week's shooting death of 2-year old Wyatt Matteau has been on my mind a lot - not just because of the affect that it had on two of my friends in the EMS community but because of public reaction to this senseless tragedy and how I personally feel about it. I know a lot of people aren't going to agree with my opinion but that's okay because this is my opinion and I feel it necessary to express it - controversial or not.
First off, let me state right here and now that I am not an unsympathetic person by any means. I have an incredibly large soft spot in my heart in spite of all my years in 911 and some of the tragedies that I have had to deal with both personally and from a distance. I once listened to a man being shot to death in a California bar, my heart broke when four young boys died in the Lake Street fire that I worked the dispatch on, I've tried to comfort a grieving widow whose husband just died on her without warning while she blamed herself, and I've listened to innumerable people scream and cry when someone they love has been lost or hurt. I've done all of those things and more and have generally come home and cried myself because of the grief and sadness that sometimes goes along with human life. I am not a cold, hard, unfeeling person no matter what these next few paragraphs may sound like.
When the 911 call for Wyatt's death came in last Thursday morning, it didn't come into my dispatch center so I didn't have to field the calls from screaming neighbors who were unintelligble and unable to give the dispatchers the correct details of what had happened. Initially we didn't know what had happened other than a neighboring town needed a paramedic for an unresponsive pediatric patient. As the details of the call unfolded the call went from being an unresponsive pediatric to a question of a gunshot wound to a confirmed call of a 2-year old patient shot in the head. My initial thought was "Oh my God, who would shoot a 2-year old in the head?" as I just couldn't comprehend that heinous of an act no matter how many years of law enforcement I had behind me.
It never dawned on me that the child may have shot himself but that's exactly what happened. Young Wyatt Matteau, an adorable blonde-haired little boy (I will spare you the pictures I saw on the news as those make this story even more heartbreaking), had found a loaded gun under a pillow and shot himself in the eye while his parents were somewhere else in the house with his baby sister. Two of my good friends, along with other medical personnel, provided the best care possible to Wyatt before he was flown by helicopter to Connecticut Children's Hospital in Hartford where he died a short time later from his injuries. Those two friends are still trying to come to grips with the call and even though I think they'll eventually be okay, they're still going to be scarred for life.
But this isn't about them this time, this is about the carelessness of parents who leave loaded guns in places where their children can find them; this is about who is responsible for Wyatt's death; and this is about what should happen next. I am not unsympathetic to Jason and Becky Matteau - they have suffered a horrible loss and, as a parent myself who can't even fathom the horror of losing one of my own children, my heart goes out to them but my heart goes out even more to that little boy whose life was cut short because the very people who were entrusted to care for him and raise him and protect him failed to do so; horribly failed to do so and now he's gone.
Two reasons prompted me to write this post rather than keep my own council - the first came in the form of an open letter to the public that Wyatt's parents sent to the local news media (click here to read it) that just struck the wrong chord with me for reasons I can't really explain. The second came via fax machine to the dispatch center at work in the form of a request to send money to a memorial fund that has been set up. The fax reads in part that "A memorial fund has been set up for Becky and Jason Matteau in the name of Wyatt Matteau ... Becky and Jason lost their son in a sad and tragic accident in their home. Jason and Becky have been involved in the Canterbury Fire Department for many years and Jason recently joined the Jewett City Fire Department. Their son Wyatt was a vivacious and loving boy that will be sorely missed. ... Thank you for your help in this tragic time." What it should have said is that Jason and Becky should have known better and then this "tragic time" wouldn't exist but of course you can't say that and ask for money at the same time.
All of this makes it sound like Wyatt's parents had nothing to do with Wyatt's death when nothing could be further from the truth. "A sad and tragic accident" ... a sad and tragic accident that could have been prevented had an adult in that household had the common sense to lock away any firearms so that small hands couldn't reach them; a sad and tragic accident that could have been prevented had an adult in that household obeyed the laws of the State of Connecticut; a sad and tragic accident that never should have happened but did because of the carelessness of Wyatt's very own parents.
The State Medical Examiner ruled Wyatt's death as "accidental" which comes as no surprise as the boy did get hold of the gun and shoot himself - there's no argument there at all. Where the argument seems to be is as to whether or not Wyatt's parents should be held responsible and accountable for their son's death. Considering that it was an adult that left that gun somewhere that his young hands could find it, pull the trigger, and end his own life then I would have to say that yes, they should be held responsible and accountable and that the law should be upheld. There are those who disagree stating that the parents have suffered enough and have to live with the knowledge that they essentially killed their own child but I disagree; the law is there for a reason. Wyatt's parents ignored it and failed to protect him so now I think it's time for the State of Connecticut to step in and uphold that very law that it put into place to protect children like Wyatt.
In 1990, Connecticut passed a law that makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison for failing to properly secure a gun that is used by a child under 16 to cause death or injury. That seems pretty clear, doesn't it? And it's not that hard of a law to keep either as all you have to do is "properly secure" the gun. Unload it, put a trigger lock on it (available for free at all police departments), store it in a locked box, place it somewhere a child can't reach it ... not leave it lying around loaded under a pillow and then forget about it so that a curious toddler can find it.
The law wasn't passed in order to punish people, it was passed as the result of lobbying by a former Connecticut mother, Susan Kenney, whose 12-year old son died when he was accidentally shot in 1989 by a friend playing with a gun owned by the friend's father. In 1989, a total of five Connecticut children were shot to death by other children playing with loaded guns they had found in their homes or at the homes of friends. Five children dead. It was obvious that parents weren't doing enough to protect their own children so the State of Connecticut stepped in with a law to protect them and made it a Class D felony to keep a loaded firearm on “any premises” where a minor under age 16 could gain access to it without permission unless the gun is kept in a locked box or carried on the person of the adult.
As members of their local Fire Departments and gun enthusiasts, Wyatt's parents must have known this law but obviously they failed to obey the very law that was designed to protect Wyatt and as a result, Wyatt's funeral is being held today. Yes - his death was an accident, yes - his death is tragic, yes - it is horribly sad but an even bigger yes is that it could have been prevented. Easily prevented. And it wasn't.
The State of Connecticut owes it to not only Wyatt but to every other child in the State to enforce the law that was designed to keep Wyatt and other children like him alive. If a child's parent has to spend some time in jail in addition to knowing that they were responsible for his or her child's death then maybe other parents will think twice about not locking up a loaded weapon and leaving it somewhere that a child can find it and harm or kill him or herself or perhaps even another innocent child.
Someone has to be the adult here - someone has to be accountable - someone has to take responsibility. Wyatt wasn't an adult and never will be, Wyatt wasn't and couldn't be accountable, and it wasn't Wyatt's responsibility to know better than to play with a loaded gun that never should have been left someplace that he could get to it in the first place. That was his parents' responsibility and - love him or not - they failed him miserably and that is where the true tragedy lies in all of this.