Veronica Rutledge grew up around guns in North Idaho and retained her interest in them as a wife and young mother.
She was a hunter and a recreational shooter who enjoyed target practice with her husband, Colt. Since she frequently carried a concealed weapon, he got her a purse with a holster for Christmas.
“They’d been looking at another way for her to carry. Something that was comfortable,” said her father-in-law, Terry Rutledge.
Rutledge, 29, had that purse with her on Tuesday, when her 2-year-old son accidentally shot and killed her at the Wal-Mart in Hayden. The shooting occurred during a family outing. Rutledge had taken her son and three nieces to the store to spend their holiday gift cards.
The boy, who was riding in a shopping cart, unzipped the purse’s holster compartment and pulled out his mother’s loaded semi-automatic handgun. Rutledge, who was a few feet away, died instantly from a gunshot wound to the head.
Terry Rutledge said he’s reluctant to talk about the family tragedy that has attracted national attention, but wants to set the record straight about his daughter-in-law, a chemical engineer from Blackfoot, Idaho.
“She was not an irresponsible mother who just said, ‘Oh, I want a gun,’ and went to the gun store and tossed it loosely into her purse. The purse was designed with a built-in holster,” Terry Rutledge said. “Unfortunately, an inquisitive 2-year-old boy unzipped the compartment while his mother was looking at clothing with her three young nieces, and accessed the gun.”
“I love her like she’s mine,” he said of his daughter-in-law. “I don’t want her portrayed as being irresponsible or careless. That was not at all the case.”
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office released new details of the shooting Wednesday afternoon. The Wal-Mart store manager, who was nearby, stepped in and took the gun away from the child after the shooting. Store employees acted quickly to secure the scene and escort shoppers out of the store.
Rutledge’s gun was a 9 mm Smith & Wesson M&P Shield semi-automatic. Pulling the trigger requires exerting 6 1/2 pounds of pressure, according to the manufacturer’s website. That would be within the grip of a small child, said Lt. Stu Miller, a department spokesman.
Sheriff deputies will examine the gun to determine if it had any built-in safety devices, whether they were functioning correctly, and if the gun had been modified.
Chad Russell, a National Rifle Association-certified firearm instructor in Idaho Falls, advises his students not to keep guns in purses – even those designed specifically for firearms.
“It’s too easy to leave that purse somewhere,” he told the Post-Register in Idaho Falls. “That’s where I think this woman up in Hayden really made the big mistake is she allowed her firearm to leave her possession.”
Russell said he often carries a pistol, but it stays strapped to his body when it’s not locked in a safe. “When it comes to firearms, and with situations like this and having small kids, you’ve got to take that extra step … to keep others around you safe.”
Tuesday’s accident is a heart-wrenching reminder that young children and guns don’t mix, said Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
“Toddlers explore the world with their hands, sometimes with tragic consequences,” Hutson said. “We (need to) learn how to better keep guns away from curious children.”
About 5 percent of Idaho households with children under 18 have unlocked and loaded firearms, according to the Brady Center’s data. That represents about 17,000 children living in homes with unsecured guns. The estimate, which is self-reported, is probably conservative, Hutson said.
Nationally, there aren’t statistics on how many young children shoot themselves or others by accident. However, there were several other accidental shootings involving children in Washington and Idaho in 2014:
• On Aug. 23, a 7-year-old boy was critically injured in Hayden after he was shot in the head by a 2-year-old. He has since recovered.
• A 3-year-old was shot in the mouth while he and a 4-year-old neighbor played with a gun in Lake Stevens, Washington, on Nov. 21.
• A 5-year-old girl from Blackfoot, Idaho, was shot and killed by another 5-year-old in Chubbuck, Idaho, on July 30. The girl’s family was visiting the Chubbuck home when the two children got their hands on a loaded gun as the adults were in another room.
In a case that made national headlines, a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her gun safety instructor with an Uzi in Arizona in August.
Meanwhile, family and friends are mourning Veronica Rutledge, whom they remember as a loving wife and mother and a talented scientist. The 2004 valedictorian of Kootenai High School in Harrison, Rutledge went on to work at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. The lab supports the U.S. Department of Energy with research on nuclear and energy issues and national defense.
Terry Rutledge said his daughter-in-law’s death will be an ongoing tragedy for the family. The nieces who witnessed the shooting are all under the age of 11. They’re having a rough time. “We’ll get counseling for them to help them through it,” he said.
“Fortunately, right now, the young boy doesn’t really understand what happened,” he added. “My son will try to explain to him why mommy isn’t going to come home today, or tonight or next week.”
As an older child, his grandson will wonder what happened to his mother. The truth will be hard.
“They’ll have to deal with that,” Terry Rutledge said. “They’re going to have to do this several times.”
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