How an Unsecured Firearm Changed This Mom’s Life

By: Julvonnia McDowell, mother of JaJuan McDowell


Julvonnia and JaJuan McDowell

If you’ve ever experienced trauma, you may find that the littlest things are changed forever. For me? I have a tough time with the past tense. The word “was” is particularly hard for me. Because when you start every statement about your child with “he was,” life will never be the same.

My story

On April 3, 2016, I helped my 14-year-old son pack his bag for spring break. He was going to spend time with family in Savannah, Georgia. As any mother would, I carefully went over all his belongings. I checked to make sure he had everything he needed, like his asthma inhaler. If I could go back to that day, there’s 1 more thing I would have checked for. I would’ve asked my family members if they had any unsecured firearms in the house.

Just 4 days later, my son was killed in a 100% preventable, unintentional shooting incident.

On Thursday, April 7, 2016, an unsecured gun laid in a drawer in a family member’s home, loaded, covered only by a T-shirt. Exactly a month after my son’s 14th birthday, he was unintentionally shot and killed by another teen, a family member, while they were playing with that gun.

There’s no shock quite like the shock you experience when your older son calls you and asks you if you’re sitting down. The shock that travels through your entire body when your flesh and blood tells you that his brother has been shot. The shock that makes a 4-hour drive feel like an eternity.

When you get that call, everything about life, hope and prayers goes out the window. You just know that you need him to be alive.

When you get to the hospital and find out your son is gone, life as you know it is forever changed. There is only life before and after that moment. And now you start speaking in the past tense.

My bud (short for rosebud) had a radiant smile. He was full of joy. He loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian. He was just beginning to gain confidence as a young man, always telling jokes and pulling pranks.

JaJuan loved helping people. He was sweet and considerate. He was many wonderful things. Now he is, and will always be, my inspiration to save lives.

My advice for parents

My son’s story didn’t end on April 7, 2016. JaJuan is saving lives. By sharing his story and talking to parents about firearm safety, I know this to be true.

If I could leave parents with only a single piece of advice, it would be this: Do not ever assume your child is immune from the risks of firearm injury and always have direct and honest conversations about your child’s safety.

Asking other adults—whether they be friends, family members, a school acquaintance or a sitter—about unsecured firearms could absolutely save your child’s life. Don’t shy away from a few moments of discomfort. Because these few moments pale in comparison to the feeling of selecting your child’s casket.

I think we have a false sense of security sending our children to visit with close friends and family members. We assume everything’s going to be OK because these people love our children as their own. But our assumptions don’t change the fact that there are 4.6 million homes with guns in them, many of which are left unsecured.

Kids are curious and resourceful. Think about how many times they’ve found gifts we’ve hidden. An unsecured gun is no different.

So the next time your child is away from home, ask the question. If you’re uncomfortable, make the conversation about you and your family. You can say, “My child is very curious. They’re always getting into something. I need to know—do you have an unlocked gun in your house?”

If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for a single second. And I hope my story empowers you to do the same.


Millions of Americans own firearms, so it’s absolutely critical to store guns securely.

To keep kids away from guns, add layers of security. Store them:

  • Unloaded. Never keep a loaded gun in the house (or car).
  • Locked. We suggest using a lockbox or gun safe. You can use trigger and/or cable locks as additional safety measures.
  • Separate from ammunition. Store firearms and ammunition locked in separate and secure locations.
  • Out of reach. Store lockboxes and safes out of reach, and out of sight, of young children. Keep keys away from kids and teens, and do not share combination codes.

For more about firearm safety and safe gun storage, read safety and discussion tips from our emergency department physicians and licensed behavioral health specialists.