YOUNGSTOWN — In January 2022, Zulimar Vazquez, then 23, told Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court about the pain she suffered being separated from her 3-year-old son after the boy shot himself with her brother’s handgun.
“Every day I ask God to return him to my hands,” she said. “God knows how much I love and miss my son. I never thought an accident like this would happen, especially with my son.”
But Krichbaum said there is no excuse for failing to protect your child.
“The one thing I understood from the get-go (as a parent) is that I’m responsible for that child,” Krichbaum said. “I’m the one who has to protect the child, raise the child, teach the child and eventually send that child off into the world.”
He said, “I have to do this right. I have to know what to do and how to do it. As parents, we all have to learn. Leaving a gun out, knowing it’s out, leaving someone in your house who has a gun. You have such a precious life in your hands. It imposes on you the responsibility to protect that child, and you failed in that regard.”
He said she failed to protect the boy from a “known and obvious danger” and sentenced her to one year in prison.
Her son picked up a red handgun her brother, Luis M. Vazquez, then 22, had left on the nightstand in his bedroom in the apartment he shared with his sister and nephew on McBride Street in Youngstown in March 2021.
The boy followed his mother into the bedroom when she went in there to get earbuds to use while giving the boy a bath. He picked up the loaded gun and shot himself in the stomach. The boy survived and was placed in the custody of his father.
The Youngstown area has seen an unhealthy trend in recent weeks: Children shooting themselves or carrying a firearm from home into a school.
De’Vonte Ja’Ton Housely Jr., 7, was shot to death at a home on Marmion Avenue on the South Side early Oct. 22. Police believe it was an accidental shooting but said they would investigate other explanations and will evaluate whether anyone should be charged criminally.
Carla Molina, the boy’s grandmother, told The Vindicator she raised the boy his first six years of life, but he had gone back to live with his mother in 2021, and Molina had not seen the boy since Sept. 11.
Mahoning County Children Services had been working with the boy’s mother for about two weeks prior to the child’s death, though not regarding firearms, the agency’s executive director, Richard Tvaroch, said. He would not discuss specifics.
“As far as guns go, buy a gun lock, a safe, or even get them out of the house when there’s children involved,” he said. “By nature, kids are curious, they’re going to see it and they’re going to be drawn to it so if you think you’re cautious, be more cautious, take advantage of community resources — anything to keep your kids safe.”
A second incident happened Nov. 11, when a boy, 14, was accidentally shot in a home in the 200 block of East Lucius Avenue on the South Side and died Nov. 13 after he was removed from life support.
Capt. Jason Simon, head of the detective division of the Youngstown Police Department, said last week the investigation is ongoing, but so far it points to negligence. Police are trying to determine where the gun came from, he said.
Jessica Wolfe, 33, of Lowellville, was charged with misdemeanor child endangering early this month after a boy, 8, brought a gun in his backpack into the Lowellville Schools complex Oct. 31.
The weapon was found when the boy entered the school through a metal detector.
Wolfe is set for a hearing in Mahoning County Juvenile Court on Dec. 4. She is accused of failing to properly secure the gun, which belonged to Wolfe.
Wolfe also was charged with felony illegal conveyance or possession of a deadly weapon in a school safety zone and misdemeanor misconduct at an emergency in May 2022.
She had come to the school complex with a gun that day — the same day a junior high school boy brought a gun to school and shot himself in front of other students in the lunchroom. He died from his injuries.
Wolfe’s case was handled through the Mahoning County Honors Court, which serves military veterans who are charged with low-level felony offenses who meet “legal and clinical eligibility requirements,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs grant announcement for the court. A goal of the program is to reduce recidivism.
No court records are available regarding the case, apparently because her record was expunged.
ADVICE FROM A GUN SELLER
Longtime gun store owner Mike Miller Jr., of Miller Rod and Gun on Youngstown-Poland Road, said criminal charges should be filed in some situations, like the one involving Zulimar Vazquez and her brother.
“There is no reason not to charge somebody or hold them accountable because when you are the responsible adult, it’s the same as if you are driving drunk with a child in the back seat, you are endangering the child’s life.
“If you have a firearm and you leave it laying around with children, it’s the same exact thing. You are endangering that child’s life. So you don’t want to take a chance. You always make sure your firearm is stored in a safe way, whether it’s locked or completely unloaded in a place where a child cannot access it.”
He said firearm safety is “more simple than people make it out to be. First of all, the biggest thing is if you don’t know anything about it, don’t touch them. Children naturally don’t understand that, but this is the responsibility of the adult or the gun owner, whoever it may be, a relative or family member.”
He said if a firearm is left unattended, especially loaded, “the burden is on the person who has done that.” He said someone doing that has not had “proper firearms training themselves if they are doing something like that.
“The most important thing about a firearm is you have to always treat it as if it is loaded, even if it’s not. You are never going to point it in a direction that is unsafe. You are going to handle it without touching the firearm’s trigger.
“And if you learn this yourself, you are more inclined to teach it to a child or teach them this is something they don’t touch or keep it in place stored so that it is not loaded or not accessible to the children or not accessible to people who should not have access to a firearm.”
He said a firearm should not be kept loaded unless it is a “self-defense weapon. Do not leave it anywhere where it could be accessible to a child or someone who should not have a firearm.”
Dr. Judy Schaechter, professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida, writing for the Healthychildren.org website, reported in late September that “roughly a third of U.S. homes with children have guns” and that an estimated 4.6 million kids live with unlocked, loaded guns.
Firearms are now the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens under age 18, and having firearms in the home increases the risk of unintentional shootings, suicide and homicide, she reported.
Between 2015 and 2022, at least 2,802 unintentional shootings were by children age 17 and younger. They resulted in 1,083 deaths and 1,815 nonfatal injuries.
The website recommends a safe or lockbox for handguns, and a locked gun safe for rifles, gun trigger locks and a lock box for ammunition.