Gary gun safety campaign spotlights a mother’s heartache

Kandice Cole of Wheatfield choked up Monday as she recalled the fateful day almost seven years ago when her young son Eric Cole was killed after gaining access to an unsecured handgun in his babysitter’s Center Township home.

It is a story she has told time and again in the wake of her son’s tragic killing, still the pain cuts deep as she tries to share a message of handgun safety in the hopes of stopping another family from experiencing the same suffering.

“It’s just my hope the more I share this tragedy… we can spare other parents the heartache,” Cole said.

Cole joined Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter; Mark Spencer, director of the West Side Theatre Guild and a Gary City Councilman; and Mayor Eddie Melton to launch a series of gun safety videos as part of the wider gun safety and gun lock distribution initiative announced by Carter’s office in January.

She said it is all too common for parents to leave their children with a babysitter, relative or friend and not ask if there are firearms in the home and whether those firearms are properly secured. Parents are comfortable asking about potential allergens or pets, but rarely if ever do they ask about firearms, she said.

“I want to make it more commonplace to ask people,” Cole said.

So many parents just like her assume that anyone who owns a gun would do so responsibly and secure that weapon properly, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Eric gained access to an unsecured handgun in his babysitter’s home and shot himself in the forehead. He died at the scene. His older sister was a witness to the shooting.

“I think we assume … that anybody who has a firearm is responsible enough to keep this away from children and keep them safe,” Cole said.

Both the babysitter and her husband, Brett A. Beatty, were charged for their role in the shooting. The babysitter was home at the time and in a different room. The gun belonged to Beatty. In a plea agreement that dropped the charges against the babysitter, the gun owner was sentenced to two years in jail, two years in community corrections, and one year suspended for reckless homicide and criminal recklessness.

Carter stood firm on his stance that any death of a child at the hands of an adult that could have been avoided — such as a drunken driving incident or a shooting death — is never an accident and urged police, elected officials and those in prosecutors’ offices to refrain from labeling those deaths as such.

He urged the use of the phrase “death investigation” allows investigators the time to determine what charges are warranted. He called on legislators to increase the penalty range for certain offenses, such as operating while intoxicated, so judges can have created latitude in penalizing offenders when the situation warrants.

“Don’t use that term accident .… It diminishes the seriousness of the offense and the neglect this parent or individual did to make that child die,” Carter said.

Carter said when Spencer first learned of the gun safety program he stepped up to offer whatever assistance possible. That partnership led to the creation of three videos that will be used to help promote gun safety.

Spencer said production of the videos was in his wheelhouse and the topic carries great weight with him. During his time as an educator, he has mourned the loss of 18 children to gun violence.

“It’s very traumatic,” Spencer said.

One video encourages people to keep their guns secure and ask the important questions about gun ownership and storage in places where children will be. The video says it is more than a call for action, but a plea for prevention.

A second video provides step-by-step instructions on how to use a gun safety lock on both semi-automatic handguns and revolvers and how to properly store guns, ammunition, and gun lock keys. The third video features Spencer interviewing Cole about her family’s experience and what she hopes to accomplish by sharing her son’s story.

“If (the video) saves one life, it’s worth it,” Spencer said.

Individuals who receive one of the gun safety locks can snap the QR code on the packaging to be directed to the videos.

Carter said the videos will be used county-wide to help get the message out. Cole said she also is trying to get her employer to show the video.

The locks are available to anyone in Lake County. The Gary Police Department will be a distribution point. Other police departments such as St. John and Highland among others already have gun safety lock programs in place. Gun locks also will be distributed through the Lake County Ministerial Alliance.

Fundraising to continue to replenish the supply of gun safety locks will be ongoing, he said.

Melton said he stands grieving with the families who have suffered a loss because of gun violence. His administration is working to make the community safer and so far this year violent crime is significantly lower. Still, there is work to be done.

“No parent should have to experience that pain,” Melton said.