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PRESCOTT VALLEY, ARIZ. — A 4-year-old boy who was visiting Prescott Valley with his dad grabbed a loaded handgun from a television stand, asked what it was and pulled the trigger, killing the man in what police say was a tragic accident.
Justin Stanfield Thomas, 34, had traveled from Phoenix to a friend’s home on Friday to pick up some of his things from a duplex where he lived until earlier this year, police said. The boy quickly found a .380-caliber semi-automatic handgun, showed it to his dad and fired it, authorities said.
“Daddy got blood on him,” the boy later told investigators.
Police Sgt. Brandon Bonney said Monday that it didn’t appear that the tenant — James Williams, 26 — knew Thomas and his son would be visiting or had enough time to secure the weapon before they arrived. No children lived in the house.
Bonney said Williams was asleep when Thomas sent him a text message to say he was coming over, but Williams didn’t read it until authorities showed up to investigate the shooting.
Williams is heard in a 911 recording released Monday saying that a man in his 30s was shot in the left side of the chest and was bleeding. One of his unidentified male friends was in the living room at the time and told authorities that he heard the boy say “what is this?” before a shot rang out. Thomas grabbed his chest and said to call 911, then collapsed, police said.
With labored breathing, Williams tells a dispatcher that he wasn’t sure what happened but that he believed it was an accident involving Thomas’ son.
“He’s nonresponsive, he’s breathing, there’s bubbles coming from his mouth,” Williams says. “He looks pretty bad.”
Thomas later died at a hospital.
The Prescott Daily Courier reported that Thomas was an Army special forces veteran who served in Iraq. His mother told Phoenix television station KNXV that her grandson did not understand what happened and was waiting to play with his dad. A number listed for her in Tampa, Fla., was disconnected.
Bonney said no charges were expected in the case, and that Williams kept the weapon for self-defense. He said Williams was in a back bedroom when Thomas and his son arrived, and the gun went off within a minute.
“He really wasn’t in a position to know they were there or to go and secure his gun,” Bonney said. “With this person, living by himself, there wasn’t necessarily any legal requirement to keep that weapon locked away.”
No one answered the door Monday at the duplex.
The case has raised questions about how weapons should be stored in a home even when children aren’t present. Firearms experts say gun owners have a certain responsibility for their weapons but aren’t required to lock them up at all times.
Larry Kolontar, owner of Common Sense Firearms Training in Des Moines, Iowa, said the issue isn’t about whether children are present inside the home — it’s about control of your weapon at all times.
“If it’s not on you or in a secured location, out of reach and hidden, it needs to be locked up,” said Kolontar, who teaches firearms safety. “This is a very sad, horrible situation, but it’s one of those things that could have been avoided if the owner would have taken a little more responsibility and secured the weapon.”
Jon Abel, lead instructor and owner of Phoenix Firearms Training, said children also need to be taught at an early age not to point guns at people or avoid handling them altogether, in the same way they’re taught to not play with knives or to avoid a hot stove.
“Talk about it, demystify it,” he said.