In November 2010, O received a court-ordered letter from 29-year-old Carl Gerken of Casper, Wyoming. After his girlfriend's 3-year-old son accidentally shot and killed himself with Gerken's nine-millimeter handgun last March, Gerken was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced (on top of 30 days in jail) to write to nine different publications, including O, outlining the events that led to the tragedy. The text of his letter is below.

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Carl Gerken. I have written this letter to your publication in hopes that you will print it and that it will create discussion in homes. Please learn from my mistake.

On March 3, 2010 my three year old stepson, Ryland, died of an accidental gunshot to the head.

I was born and raised in Wyoming and from an early age had a love for the outdoors and for hunting. I also believe in protecting my house and my family. I owned a Springfield XD 9mm. I always kept that pistol near my bed. I would keep it in my nightstand or stuffed between the bedspring and the mattress. I always had the clip in the gun with live rounds and sometimes I would have a live round chambered. I would also keep a shotgun in a closet with a shell in the chamber but with the action broke and safety on. I had a daughter, Jaden, in 2004. I told her to never touch any of my guns, and to the best of my knowledge she never did.

In April of 2009, I met Jill. We had a very strong connection and decided to move in together in July. Ryland's biological father was not part of Ryland's life. I thought of Ryland as my own son. Things seemed to be going great.

Jill did not grow up around firearms and was basically scared of them. I had planned on getting her in a firearms class at some point. Jill was concerned and questioned me about my pistol. I assured her that nothing would happen. I told her that I had always kept it there and that Jaden had never touched it. I had told Ryland to never touch any of my guns. I told Jill that he understood and he wouldn't touch them. I truly believed that nothing could happen. About a month before the accident Ryland started showing interest in my hunting magazines and he would sit and watch hunting shows with me. Around that same time Ryland started playing with a cap gun that I had bought for my daughter. His hands weren't big enough and his fingers weren't strong enough to hold the cap gun properly and get it to fire. He would turn the gun around, to where the barrel was pointed at him. He held the butt with his hands clasp together and would pull the trigger with his thumbs, he was able to get it to go off that way.

I was working out of town a lot and I wanted Jill to be able to protect herself if she had to. I had the pistol in between my bedspring and mattress and I had a live round in the chamber. I told Jill that if something happened that she could just get the gun, point and shoot.

In the afternoon on March 3, Jill laid Ryland down for a nap in our bed. She went downstairs to finish cleaning and to watch television. Shortly after that I received a phone call from Jill. She was screaming and I could not understand her. I knew immediately that something was wrong. When I came around the corner I saw police, fire and EMS vehicles everywhere. I ran into my house, Jill was in a spare bedroom on the floor, hysterically crying. She was able to tell me that Ryland had got my pistol and had shot himself in the head and was dead. The toy pistol was lying on the bed.

Jill and I are middle working class, college educated people, we aren't criminals or druggies. We love and care for our kids very much. Please learn from my mistake. If you have children and firearms, please secure them. Our lives have been devastated, the loss of a child is indescribable.

Carl Gerken

Next: A mother reflects on her son's participation in a devastating school shooting.


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