Death And Denial In Idaho: How Gun Culture Killed A Mother

The tragic death of Veronica Rutledge has renewed the debate about gun culture in America. Rutledge, a 29 year old mother, was fatally shot in the head by her 2 year-old son in an Idaho Walmart. The toddler reached into a zippered pocket of his mother’s purse, grabbed the gun, and shot her.

Image source: (note: the sign is photoshopped and was taken from a pro-gun site as a “labeled for reuse” image)

Rutledge’s death raises questions about America’s obsession with guns. First of all, it should be noted that one of the most sought after changes in gun laws, would not have prevented this particular gun death. Rutledge was a concealed carry permit holder. She passed the background check with flying colors.

Secondly, we should dismiss the notion that simply by taking gun safety classes, we create responsible gun owners. Veronica Rutledge had extensive training and had passed the required gun safety courses.

It is also important to recognize that Rutledge was not unintelligent. She was the valedictorian of her high school class. She worked as a nuclear research scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Rutledge didn’t die because we don’t have enough gun laws. She also didn’t die because she was a fearful, “bitter clinger”. One of her friends even acknowledges that Idaho has a low crime rate. She adds that Veronica carried her loaded gun not out of fear, but “because she was raised around guns”.

Friends, family members, community members, and law enforcement officers have gone to painstaking lengths to portray Veronica Rutledge as a “responsible gun owner”. They contend her death was just a horrible accident. Yes, it was a terrible accident, but it was a preventable one. Rutledge was comfortable around guns. The problem is she was apparently too comfortable around them.

The most disturbing aspect surrounding her death is that the family seems uninterested in expressing any kind of remorse, regret, or reflection. Instead, they wrap themselves in self-righteous denial. The grieving father-in-law is angry that anyone would suggest Veronica did anything unwise. His anger is understandable, but misdirected. He notes that his daughter-in-law was licensed. She carried a gun every day. He defensively argues “this wasn’t just some purse she had thrown her gun into” because it had a special zippered pouch for the gun. However, the fact remains that she left the gun in the purse where her child could reach it.

The purse with the gun pouch was a Christmas gift from her husband. The family argues that Rutledge wasn’t irresponsible, because she and her husband had extensive experience shooting guns and they carried all the time. Yet, this is precisely what makes them irresponsible. This is the whole problem with the “guns don’t kill people, people do” argument. In its sheer banality, it renders the loaded gun a harmless object, incapable of inflicting injury or death, unless a malicious person is on the other end.

It is this comfort around guns that killed Veronica Rutledge. The attitude of gun advocates who carry guns each day has become so nonchalant and lackadaisical that it invites tragedy. The Rutledge family by all accounts is a loving, caring family who would protect their kids. Veronica Rutledge probably strapped her child into a car seat to drive him to Walmart. She probably kept hazardous chemicals and choking hazards out of reach of her child. But surrounded by the gun culture in Idaho, she failed to take reasonable precautions to keep her loaded gun away from that child.

It is even possible that the precocious toddler saw his mommy and daddy handle guns with such frequency that it enabled him to imitate their behavior. He knew where to look in his mom’s purse. He knew how to pull the trigger. Yes, it was a horrible accident. But it was an accident created by the neglect of parents who are so steeped in gun culture that they no longer clearly recognized the inherent danger posed by loaded firearms.

The father-in-law simply states “we are gun people” as if that somehow excuses leaving a child unattended in a shopping cart with a loaded gun. Yes, they are gun people. One thing gun people need to understand is that no matter how smart you are, no matter how many gun safety courses you have mastered, and no matter how confident you feel shooting a gun, if you leave it unattended, your child can still pick it up and kill somebody. No amount of denial changes that fact.

Keith Brekhus

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Keith Brekhus is a longtime political activist who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He has a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He was a Green Party candidate for Congress in 2002. His most recent political job was working as a Field Organizer in Arizona’s White Mountains, in support of Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful 2014 re-election campaign.

Keith Brekhus is a progressive sociologist who resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. Keith is a former Green Party candidate for US Congress (2002 in Missouri's 9th District). He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus.