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Death takes no holiday: Tracking gun violence over one long January weekend

Interactive map: A long weekend of gun deaths. Click to enlarge.

A special weeklong examination of gun violence, gun ownership and gun legislation. NBC News journalists will report across "NBC Nightly News," "TODAY," MSNBC, CNBC, NBCNews.com, and more. The conversation will also extend across NBC News and MSNBC's social media platforms using the hashtag #GunsInUSA.

It was after midnight, early on a Saturday in the college town of Moscow, Idaho, and student Jason "Cowboy" Monson was at the police station to get back his Desert Eagle .45-caliber handgun.

In McDonough, Ga., about the same time, two teenage brothers were still awake. A friend was sleeping over, and their mother had let the boys handle her .38-caliber revolver, which was unloaded. She'd gone to bed.

In South Valley, N.M., it was quiet at the Griego household as 15-year-old Nehemiah waited for his father to come home from the night shift at a homeless shelter. The son was holding his father's AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

In the next few hours, the freshman in Idaho, one of the brothers in Georgia, and most of the Griego family would be dead, victims of three forms of gun violence — suicide, accident and murder — that are everyday occurrences in the United States.

Their deaths, and scores of others, occurred over a holiday weekend, the third weekend in January, when America celebrated the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a victim of gun violence. It also was the weekend the nation swore in a re-elected president whose inaugural address referred to guns, though he didn’t actually say the word: "Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm."

San Antonio Express-News via Zuma Press

One of 91 deaths identified by guns across America on a long holiday weekend: Officers with the Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff's Office investigate the shooting death of Jesse Rosas, whose bullet-riddled body was found on the side of a road near San Antonio on Jan. 21. Police have not identified any suspects.

 


By the end of the long weekend — after President Barack Obama had spoken and the red, white and blue confetti strewn along Pennsylvania Avenue had been cleaned up — at least 91 people across America had been killed by guns. That's more than three times the number of caskets needed in Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. These 91 people died, not in a single burst of violence over a few minutes, but spread over a three-day weekend, like an autoworker stealing an entire convertible one part at a time to escape notice.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 14 Newtown shooting, during a renewed national debate about gun rights and gun control, NBC News picked the weekend of Jan. 19-21 to examine gun deaths across America. Today and on Monday and Tuesday, we'll tell you what we found and introduce you to some of the victims and their families. We also invite you to look at our online map and to draw your own impressions from the stories of violence.

We don't pretend to have found all the gun deaths over that weekend. There is no official census of gun deaths, and it takes the federal government many months to compile national crime and suicide statistics. We drew our list from the deaths that were reported in the press, and confirmed the details with authorities in all but a few cases. If you only want to know how many people are killed by guns on an average day in America, simply divide the annual figure, about 31,300, by 365 days, and there's your average: about 86 people a day.

As part of a weeklong special report, "Flashpoint:Guns in America," NBC News charted every death attributable to firearms that we could find over the three-day weekend in January ending on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We found that, as President Barack Obama was being sworn in for his second term, at least 91 people were losing their lives to gunfire.

Why did we find “only” 91 in three days? The main reason is that hardly any suicides get reported in the media. Suicides by gun are twice as common as gun homicides. Some homicides don't get any publicity either. Unless a killer chooses a public place, annihilates an entire family or shoots up a Wal-Mart, he might not even get on a website, in the newspaper or on TV, not on a holiday weekend competing with the festivities in the nation's capital and the Ravens-Patriots and Falcons-Seahawks games. The Griego family massacre in New Mexico was the only incident that long weekend to get significant national news attention. It also could be that holiday weekends with NFL championships are safer, with so many young men – who are statistically far more likely to shoot someone — inside instead, watching the games.

Guns by the numbers: how violence adds up

Our goal was not, however, merely to count the deaths, but to share the stories of the people who died, to see what lessons one might learn from those whose deaths usually go unnoticed, that don't prompt the president to order the White House flag to half-staff.

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It's an inescapable conclusion, even from our small sample, that there are many ways to get killed with a gun in America.

Based on interviews with police, prosecutors and family members in all but a few of the cases, we tallied 53 homicides where one person killed another. There were another three homicides where multiple people were killed. There were six murder-suicides, and six suicides. Five accidental shootings. Three shootings by police, and at least two by civilians in self-defense. That's 78 horrors with 91 dead. On a different randomly chosen weekend, the count might shake out differently.

You can get killed throwing your daughter a 17th birthday party, if your angry estranged husband shows up. Without a gun, you might have an angry confrontation and maybe some tears. With a handgun, the birthday girl in Grapevine, Texas, lost her mother and father in a murder-suicide, police said.

Or you can get killed buying a taco from a vendor on the street in Los Angeles, if you get into an argument with the wrong person, and that person has a gun.

Or catching a train: A bystander was killed at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in San Leandro, Calif., when a couple of gangs started trading shots.

You can get killed spending an afternoon with grandma. Just as the president was beginning his inaugural address and talking about making children safe, a gunman in Cocoa, Fla., burst into a home before a children's birthday party, shooting to death the mother of several of the children and seriously wounding their grandmother.

Or visiting a strip club. A U.S. Army soldier from Oklahoma's Fort Sill was killed outside a strip club during a dispute over a woman.

Manatee County Sheriff's Office

James Brady, 26, was shot and killed in Bradenton, Fla., Jan. 20, as he and two other masked men attempted to rob a resident in his carport, police said.  One alleged robber, Jared Lee, has been charged with felony murder in Brady's death. Authorities are seeking a third man, Charles Jones.

You can get killed for what may seem like like a pretty good reason, if, as the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre put it after the Newtown shooting, you're a “bad guy with a gun” who happens to run into a “good guy with a gun.” There were two shootings by citizens that apparently were justified over the long weekend, including one by a man in Bradenton, Fla., who was ready with his own handgun and a concealed weapons permit when three armed robbers wearing masks confronted him and his roommate in their carport, according to police. He killed one of them, and authorities determined it was in self-defense. There also were three shootings by police officers that have tentatively been ruled as justified, including one in which an ex-con was shot dead after he threatened to kill his hostage following an armed robbery.

Las Vegas Police

Las Vegas Police Lt. Hans Walters, 52, killed his wife, former police officer Kathryn Michelle Walters, and their 5-year-old son, Maximilian, called 911 to confess and then set his house on fire on Jan. 21, according to police. Walters killed himself with the handgun as police moved in.

But as we saw last week when a former Los Angeles police officer allegedly went on a murderous rampage against fellow law enforcement officers, the “good guys” aren’t immune to the demons that trigger gun violence. Over the inaugural weekend, a Las Vegas police lieutenant used a handgun to kill his wife, herself a former police officer, and their 5-year-old son, before killing himself, according to police, just as the president was taking his seat on the West Front terrace of the U.S. Capitol on Monday morning.

You can get killed when your fists are outgunned, like the 22-year-old man who his family said was standing up for his friends in a brawl, when someone else pulled a gun and shot him dead, according to police. They were in Torrance, Calif., attending a punk rock festival headlined by a band called "Aggression."

You can become an ironic headline, like the 20-year-old man in Lafayette, La., who was shot dead about 60 yards from the Martin Luther King Jr. recreation center, on Monday, the day when Dr. King's legacy of nonviolence was being celebrated. That shooting occurred about the time the Obamas left the White House for their inaugural ball.

Or you can be ignored as just another victim of a street crime or a drug deal, barely making the local newspapers if you're killed in a "confrontation at a mobile home park" or "shot and killed in an argument in a parking lot."

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One of the surprises in our snapshot of gun violence was how young many of the victims were.

Oregon State Police

Kayla Ann Hendrickson, 16, was killed alongside an Oregon highway on Jan. 19, by her boyfriend, Jacob Allen Green, 24, after an argument, according to police. Green committed suicide near the California border, they said.

Twenty of the 91 were too young to buy a beer at a baseball game. There's the 16-year-girl in Oregon named Kayla, who was shot to death by the highway, apparently by her 24-year-old boyfriend, who then shot and killed himself with the handgun, according to police. The 6-year-old girl in Cleveland —  her name was Navaeh, and her family called her "Nae Nae" — who somehow got her hands on what police said was the illegal handgun of her felon father, and shot herself in the face. The 18-year-old in Baton Rouge, Terrance, who was playing with a .357 Magnum; when it went off, the bullet missed him, and hit his 2-year-old brother, Travin, in the chest.

It's hard to miss how male the victims are: Out of 91 dead, 75 were men or boys. And the men were even more likely to be the ones pulling the trigger.

There's no way to count them all, but the press accounts of these deaths are sprinkled with deadly encounters fueled by drugs and alcohol. We didn't trace the race or ethnicity of victims or shooters for this project; though research indicates that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be involved in gun violence. But the cases over this weekend were not limited to "urban" violence, with the deaths happening in cities and small towns and suburbs across many class and ethnic groups.

Looking through the deaths from just that one weekend, one wonders how many of these deaths could have been prevented by the gun-control and gun-safety changes that are being discussed in Washington. There are no easy answers, but one can draw an overall conclusion: Because the types of gun deaths vary greatly, so the solutions would have to vary as well.

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health, says it will require a national mindset shift to make big inroads into the number of gun deaths, similar to the change that occurred in how child abuse – a condition once considered so endemic that it couldn’t be addressed – was viewed after new laws against it were passed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"If it was in your safety to have a gun in the home, people in public health would try to get you to own a gun," he said last month at a forum on gun violence sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Reuters news agency. "But what evidence we have is that it's against your self interest."

Improvement in mental health efforts, as proposed by the president, might make a difference, particularly in the 12 suicides and murder-suicides. But many of the cases will forever remain a mystery.

Warwick, R.I., Police Capt. Robert Nelson, who is investigating the murder-suicide of a longtime married couple on the MLK Day weekend, said the law enforcement system is set up to find and punish wrongdoers, not determine root causes: “We don’t have clear motive, and you know, you rarely do,” he told NBC News. “… As seen around the country, when someone kills somebody else then kills themselves as a result of that, you very rarely have any clear motive.”

In the Griego family massacre in New Mexico, as in the Newtown school shooting, there still is no clear understanding of what may have driven a young man to commit mass murder. Nehemiah Griego, 15, is facing murder charges in adult court. Police say the minister's son shot his mother and three younger siblings with a .22-caliber rifle as they lay in their beds early on that Saturday, then waited to shoot his father with the father's military-style AR-15 rifle.

What about the proposal to take "weapons of war" — or assault-type weapons —  off the streets, as Obama put it? Police are reluctant to give out details of the type of weapon used in a crime, because that's the sort of fact that they can use when interrogating witnesses and suspects. You'll see a lot of "unknown" for gun type on our map, and we don't have reliable information in most deaths about whether a gun was purchased or owned legally. There are several cases in which guns were not possessed legally.

The weekend of gun violence does leave an impression that few crimes are committed with the assault weapons whose legality is being debated in Washington. We saw one Detroit homicide where a witness said the gun was an AK-47, but police won't say one way or another. And Nehemiah Griego is said to have used a .22-caliber rifle, then a .223-caliber military-style AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Most of the killing, however, is done with handguns that are not on the political radar, one or two victims at a time, not crimes that depend on high-capacity magazines with more than 10 bullets.

“Certainly I’m not naive enough to say that if we were to ban military-style assault rifles and if we were to ban high-capacity magazines, that we’re not going to have killings or murders," said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney, an advocate of banning those weapons and high-capacity magazines. He was discussing the death of Daniel Colon, 44, who was killed with an unknown weapon on the morning of the inauguration, as he was walking home with his cousin from a bar where he had celebrated the football victory by the 49ers. "All we’re saying is that we can reduce the mayhem, and we can have greater control to make sure that the people that own weapons do so in a lawful fashion.”

Accidental shootings of children may be the most preventable, when children get their hands on guns that adults have not secured.

In McDonough, Ga., where the mother was asleep, the sheriff's office says the mother had let the children handle her .38-caliber revolver earlier in the evening, when it was unloaded. Sometime in the night, one of the boys loaded the gun.

The mother was awakened around 2:30 a.m. by a gunshot.

The mother's 14-year-old son had pointed the gun at his 15-year-old brother's chest and squeezed the trigger, the sheriff’s office said. The sheriff and the district attorney haven't released the names of the boys, and say they haven't decided whether to charge the brother with a crime. The sheriff's office said it didn't consider charging the grieving mother, because her gun was legally owned.

Many gun owners say they need their guns to be at hand and ready in case of an intruder breaking in during the night. "You try to look at the science," Hemenway, the Harvard professor, said at the gun violence forum. "There's no evidence at all suggesting that having the gun that you can get within two seconds matters more than the gun you can get within 10 seconds. ... There is a huge amount of evidence that having an unsecured gun leads to all sorts of death in the family."

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Looking at the gun deaths across the land, on just one weekend, is a reminder how ingrained the gun culture is in America, a large part of the story the country tells about itself, especially in the way its young men find identity.

Consider Jason "Cowboy" Monson, the freshman from the University of Idaho who went down to the police station to get his gun back.

On Friday, just before our weekend clock began, Jason's roommate spoke with his resident adviser in the dorm, saying he was afraid because Jason was keeping his Desert Eagle handgun under his pillow.

Jason was raised on a small horse farm in Middleton, Idaho, hunting and fishing, playing football for a Christian school. He was raised around guns. Jason's father is a county sheriff's patrol sergeant, and his mother is a former Boise police officer. (His parents did not respond to a request from NBC News for an interview.) Jason won a national speech competition with 4H, and was studying communications. He was also in the Air Force ROTC and hoped to serve his country. He had a new girlfriend and a sense of humor, and posted a lot of funny stuff on his Facebook page.

His online summary of himself was unassuming: "im a total cowboy. I hunt cowboy mounted shoot and drive an old ford diesel. Ive broken several bones and most recently chainsawed my foot, that was a great two months, insert sarcasm. I own several guns and will be in the ROTC at the u of I this fall. any questions message me."

Family photo

Jason Monson aims a blank pistol at the camera. Jason, who grew up on a small horse farm in Idaho, was active in Cowboy Mounted Shooting, which uses blanks.

Cowboy Mounted Shooting looks like a lot of fun. (Watch a primer on YouTube.) The riders train skilled horses and compete on an obstacle course, wearing a Western long-sleeved shirt and a cowboy hat and shooting guns loaded with powder cartridges--blanks--at ballooons. Jason had already won a couple of belt buckles. One of his fellow competitors described him as "very nice, respectful, personable and outgoing." It's a great sport for someone who likes people, horses, and guns.

When the roommate reported the gun, Jason was not at the dorm. The school called the city police, and an officer came and took the gun away. The police chief in Moscow (for non-Idahoans: that's "MOS-ko"), David Duke, said there was no hint that Jason had made any threat against anyone, and Jason wasn't in a whole lot of trouble.

After all, this is Idaho, where guns are freely allowed with no registration, and one can openly carry a gun without any permit. Jason had violated no criminal law by bringing his handgun to his dorm room, the police chief said. It was against the school rules to have it there — students have to keep their guns in the central gun locker provided by the school. Jason could have faced student judicial charges, but it wasn't a criminal matter.

When Jason got back to the dorm, his roommate had been moved to another room, and Jason was told that his gun had been confiscated. He called the Moscow police about 10 p.m. to get his gun back, and the officer asked him to come down to the station. He came down about 1 a.m., and the officer said he could have his gun, but not until Tuesday, after the MLK holiday, so he'd have a chance to lock it up at school.

At 8:46 a.m. local time Sunday morning, just as the Obama family was participating in a day of service by fixing up an elementary school in the nation's capital, Moscow police got another call from the University of Idaho, from the same dorm.

One of Jason's suitemates had found him, shot in the head, next to notes he'd written to his family.

Idaho has one of the highest rates of suicides in the country, mostly from guns. It also was the only state in the union without its own certified hotline with counselors trained in suicide prevention; a hotline opened in November, but it's open  only Monday through Thursday, 9 to 5. Chief Duke says he gets a call about suicide on campus every couple of years or so.

It turned out that the Desert Eagle .45 was not Jason's only gun. Sometime in the night, he'd gone out to his pickup truck for his Smith and Wesson Model 66 .357-caliber revolver.

'Flashpoint: Guns in America,' an NBC News special report 

In his obituary, his parents took the opportunity to plead against gun control: "Let us drag the evil hiding in the darkness of the most dangerous places on earth: Gun free zones."

Jason's photo with his obituary shows Cowboy Monson with a big grin, wearing a black hat and astride a reddish-brown horse at a canter. Jason is looking directly at the camera, where he is pointing his blank pistol.

That image is the profile photo atop his Facebook page, too, now and perhaps forever, along with the cover image of two semi-automatic rifles criss-crossed over the U.S. Constitution.

Read Part 2: The faces behind the numbers: Six victims of long weekend's violence

 Also contributing to this story and map for NBC News: Daniel Arkin, Meredith Birkett, John Brecher, David Friedman, Kriss Chaumont, Tracy Connor, Polly DeFrank, Matthew DeLuca, Miranda Leitsinger, Shezad Morani, Lisa Riordan Seville, Jonathan Sweeney and Lisa Wilkins.

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