The Cole family spent the week with their visiting Illinois relatives, busying themselves with back-to-school shopping and enjoying the last drops of summer.

Eric Cole stocked up for his second year of preschool; two pairs of orange shoes, an orange backpack and an orange and gray waterproof watch — an essential tool for the many underwater breath-holding contests he and his sister, Patience, had.

"Orange was his absolute favorite color," His mother, Kandice Cole, recalled, her eyes misting with tears. "We have some great pictures from that week. ... I guess, possibly one day I'll be able to look at those pictures from that get-together and smile, but right now I still get sad when I look at them. I just look at us and I think, 'You had no idea that life was going to change so fast.'"

On August 5, 2017, Eric found a loaded gun and shot himself in the head. He died just 15 days before his fifth birthday.

In Northwest Indiana, tragic accidents like the one that killed Eric are all too familiar. Firearm-related incidents killed 225 youth, ages 18 and under, from 1999 to 2020 in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. That’s a rate of 5.2 per 100,000 people. The national rate was 1.9 and the rate for Indiana as a whole was 2.1. In Lake County, the rate is even higher, at 7.1 per 100,000 people.

Just last Sunday 2-year-old Wyatt Luczak, of Kouts, was rushed to a Chicago hospital after reportedly shooting himself. By 6:15 p.m. Sunday, Luczak was pronounced dead.

Gun deaths among Region youth have been climbing in recent years. They dropped to less than 10 per year for 2014-18. However, in 2019 they rose to 16, and in 2020 there were 11. Nationally, the gun death rate among youth increased by 30% between 2019 and 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

Johns Hopkins' research also shows states with high gun death rates tend to be ones with weaker gun laws. The five states with the highest gun death rates — Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming, Missouri and Alabama — have stand your ground legislation, and all but Louisiana have permitless carry laws.

Indiana has a stand your ground law, and as of July 1, permitless carry is legal in the Hoosier state.

"I was raised in a house that had guns, and we were always taught gun safety. I always felt like I was a middle-of-the-road, common sense person," Cole said. "After everything that has happened with our family, I pay attention to guns more. ... I personally am not a fan of Indiana and their constitutional carry. I think background checks are a good thing; I think handgun permits are a good thing."

'A preventable tragedy'

“If you listen to Kandice’s story, there is no way that you could argue with a safe storage law,” said Jennifer Haan, of the nonprofit Moms Demand Action Indiana.

Around 7 a.m. Saturday, August 5, 2017, Cole dropped Eric and Patience off at her supervisor's Winfield home, backpacks loaded with coloring books and toys. Coworkers at the Crown Point McDonald's, Cole had known Brett Beatty for over five years. Beatty even attended her wedding.

"My family would usually babysit while me and my husband worked on the weekends, but they were out of town. So my supervisor offered to babysit the kids, and I said 'yes.'... It never crossed my mind to ask, 'Hey do you have guns?' or 'How do you store them?' It never came across my mind to ask, and that is something that I blame myself for every day," Cole said.

Shortly before 11 a.m. Cole received a call that changed her life forever: "My supervisor said, 'Eric found my gun and shot himself.'"

"Where did he shoot himself? Let it be in the hand or the foot," Cole prayed as she rushed to Beatty's house. "I even asked my supervisor, I said, 'What kind of gun? Is it a BB gun?' and he said, 'No.'"

Cole family

Eric had found Beatty's loaded .40-caliber handgun in a case underneath a bed.

"I woke up and I had two healthy kids, and within four hours of me dropping them off, I had one who passed away," Cole said.

She has made it her mission to get more parents to ask about guns.

"I want to not only make parents think twice about how they're storing their own (firearms) but to normalize asking the question, 'Hey do you guys have guns in here? And if you do, are they locked up?'" Cole said. "We ask about food allergies and we ask about pet allergies, but I don't feel like it's common enough for us to ask about gun storage."

Eric's death was a "preventable tragedy," she said.

In Northwest Indiana 17 youth ages 18 and under were killed after a gun was accidentally discharged between 1999 and 2020.

According to Everytown, unintentional shootings by children increased in the U.S. at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March and April 2020, at least 21 gun deaths were the result of a gun accidentally being discharged by someone 18 or younger, up 43% from the same two months over the three previous years.

About 70% of unintentional firearm deaths by children occur in the home, Everytown for Gun Safety data shows.

“If they can find the Christmas presents, then they can find the firearm,” Haan said.

Young people of all ages

Cole's daughter, Patience, was just 8 years old when Eric died. The siblings were "the best of friends, connected at the hip all the time," she said.

Now 12, Patience has thrown herself into her love of softball.

"Softball became her happy place," Cole said. "She'll look for cardinals when we're driving to a tournament, she'll look for butterflies and dragonflies while she's out in the field playing, ... and I think that's her little way of saying 'I know Eric's watching me play ball.'"

Though her daughter is older now, Cole still asks friends' families about their gun ownership.

"Now I look at more of the big picture when it comes to firearms, not just accidental deaths, but the whole mental health part of it," Kandice said. "Things seem so big when you are in middle school or high school, so making sure that something is secure could save them from possibly attempting suicide or other things that are happening with kids that have access to firearms."

Of the 225 youth that died due to firearm-related incidents between 1999 and 2020 in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, 195 victims were over 14. Everytown data also shows that nationally, 18- to 20-year-olds commit gun homicides at triple the rate of people 21 years old and over.

According to John Hopkins, firearms were the leading cause of death for American youth ages 19 and under in 2020. Homicides accounted for 64% of the deaths, and 30% were suicides.

As children age, gun storage methods must adapt, Haan said. Responsible gun storage means securing firearms in safes, separate from ammunition and keeping them locked and unloaded.

As the Cole family prepares to mark five years since Eric's death, Cole said his loss has not gotten any easier.

Back-to-school season is still a "melancholy time" for the family, and a flower bed filled with orange tulips, lilies and marigolds grows outside their Wheatfield home in Eric's memory.

Speaking at Moms Demand Action events, bonding with other families touched by gun violence and talking with parents and gun owners about the importance of safe storage has helped Cole cope with some of the pain.

"I just think that a root cause is safe storage. How many crises could have been averted if the adults who own the firearms locked them up?"

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