No one was injured when a child brought a gun to Washington Elementary School on Tuesday. 

"There wasn't a tragedy this time, but there absolutely could have been," said Dr. Nathan Allen, the head of the Billings Clinic emergency department. 

Early reports indicated that the child obtained the gun while being watched by a babysitter.

Allen emphasized the importance of secure firearm storage around children, especially in a state that loves guns. 

A 2016 survey of health factors in Yellowstone County found that about 56 percent of homes had a firearm. Among homes with children, 51 percent had a firearm. Both of those statistics were more than 20 percent higher than the national average. 

For homes that did have a firearm, 16 percent left weapons unlocked and loaded — about four percent lower than the national average. The survey did not ask the question about homes with children, but Allen said he's reviewed research that shows about 1 in 8 homes with children and firearms don't secure those weapons.

"I think this could have happened at any school in Billings," he said. "In Montana, I think that this is a routine part of injury prevention for children," on par with education about bike helmets and seat belts. 

For storage, guns should at least be kept separate from ammunition, and kept in a locked location children don't have access to, Allan said. 

"Things like hiding firearms somewhere else is not a good solution for that," he said. "Kids are prone to quick decision-making, and it's a curiosity."

Quick decision-making is part of what makes gun access dangerous. 

A growing body of research recognizes that firearm use is more lethal than other means of suicide, and that Montana's high rate of firearm ownership likely contributes to the state's high suicide rate, including for children. 

When access is easy, pulling a trigger has devastating effects, whether accidental or intentionally. But creating barriers — separate ammunition, trigger locks, a gun safe — requires more intentional decisions that research shows is more likely to make a person reconsider self harm. 

Easy access for children, Allen said, "isn't an accident. That is a tragedy that's waiting to happen."

Police investigation

Billings Police Department spokesman Lt. Brandon Wooley said the Tuesday incident is under investigation and that no additional details will be released

When asked about how the child obtained the weapon, Wooley said "that's all part of what we're looking at."

Montana law prohibits supervising adults to "permit" the public, unaccompanied carry of firearms for child younger than 14. Similarly, a law prohibiting guns in school covers parents or guardians who "purposefully and knowingly permit" a minor to bring a weapon to school. 

That language likely doesn't cover a mistake or an unintentional act, said Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ed Zink. 

“There’s a lot of purpose and intent and awareness of one’s actions in that,” he said. 

Zink declined to evaluate hypothetical situations about whether a child obtaining a gun without adult permission could fall under other statutes. 

“Everything we do is driven by specific circumstances and specific facts,” he said. “We analyze cases based on the facts the are brought to us in specific investigations.”

School response

School District 2 superintendent Greg Upham said Wednesday a student told a teacher around 2 p.m. that another student had the gun in a backpack. That teacher immediately confiscated the student's backpack, saw the gun, and notified the principal. 

The principal then contacted police. 

Upham said he wasn't happy with the parent notification process of the incident. 

"Our robocall system was not as effective as we want it to be, and it was not as timely as we wanted it to be," he said. 

He also cited the importance of safely storing firearms. 

"We need to make sure as adults and caregivers and guardians that we secure firearms," he said. 

Upham also emphasized the role of student-staff communication, like the student who notified the Washington teacher about the gun. 

"That's the best safety measure that we have in schools."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.