Public Safety

Parents of 3-year-old who fatally shot himself sue Barre woman who left the gun unsecured

Gregory and Evelyn Bunce of Saco, Maine, want the civil lawsuit to raise awareness of the dangers of storing loaded guns unlocked and in places that are easily accessed by children, according to their attorney. Vermont has no laws requiring the safe storage of firearms. Photo by Somchai Kongkamsri via Pexels

More than a year after a Maine toddler died when he accidentally shot himself with a gun he found at a Barre home, the child’s parents are suing the homeowner and her employer, claiming both neglected to make sure the weapon was stored safely.

Parents Gregory and Evelyn Bunce of Saco, Maine, want the civil lawsuit to raise awareness of the dangers of storing loaded guns unlocked and in places that are easily accessible to kids, according to their attorney.  

Vermont has no laws requiring the safe storage of firearms, but some Democratic lawmakers could press for changes during the upcoming legislative session.

The death of 3-year-old Peter Bunce in June 2021 “was a senseless, preventable tragedy,” Mark Franco, the parents’ lawyer, said in a statement. “The Bunce family remains devastated by the loss of Peter and their lives have been changed forever.”

Franco, who is based in Portland, Maine, declined to make himself or the parents available for an interview.

Gregory and Evelyn Bunce brought the suit against the homeowner, Rebecca Post of Barre, in October in U.S. District Court in Burlington. They’re seeking compensatory and punitive damages, according to court records.

No criminal charges have been filed.

The couple is also suing Post Insurance & Financial Inc., a Florida-based company that Post manages with her sister, claiming Post kept guns at her house in part to protect her office there on the company’s behalf. 

“Post Insurance knew that Rebecca kept loaded firearms in the house,” the lawsuit states, but, “at no time did Post Insurance take any steps to supervise Rebecca's storage of her loaded firearms, or otherwise to ensure that she stored them safely.”

The company filed a response to Gregory and Eveleyn Bunce's initial complaint in November denying that it knew about the presence of guns in the house. 

Post — whose father founded the insurance company, according to the lawsuit — had not filed a response in federal court as of Tuesday. Neither she nor the company’s Florida office responded to a request for comment. 

According to the lawsuit, Gregory Bunce drove Peter Bunce and his 7-year-old sister from Maine to Post’s house in Barre on June 25, 2021. Post had been dating Gregory Bunce’s brother for several years, according to court records. 

Post kept two loaded pistols in her nightstand at the time in soft, unlocked cases, court records state, and the weapons did not have trigger locks on them. 

The following morning, while Post was out shopping with Peter Bunce’s older sister, the 3-year-old found the pistols in Post’s bedroom and accidentally fired one of them at his head, killing him, according to the family’s lawsuit. 

Gregory Bunce was downstairs, the lawsuit states, “when he heard the gunshot and a thud from upstairs, placing him in immediate fear for his own life.”

Vermont has no law requiring unattended firearms to be stored in a certain way or to have trigger locks. The state also has no laws imposing penalties on people who fail to secure an unattended gun and leave it accessible to a child.

All other New England states have laws designed to prevent children from accessing firearms and three — Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut — have some requirements for storing guns behind a lock.

Rory Thibault, the Washington County state’s attorney, said Vermont’s lack of a policy prescribing how to store or access guns in a home contributed to his decision not to criminally charge Post following the accidental shooting. 

Still, there were other factors that led to that decision, Thibault said. Post’s house did not normally host children, and the homeowner wasn’t present when the child entered her bedroom. That limited how she could respond to the situation, Thibault said. (The lawsuit claims Gregory Bunce did not know there were loaded guns in the house.)

“The nature and circumstances of the storage of the firearms in the residence do not meet the threshold of a ‘gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would have exercised,” Thibault wrote about his decision in an August 2021 memo to the Barre Town Police Department.

In Vermont, 44% of all households store at least one firearm in or around the home, and most of those households — 81% — store them locked and unloaded, according to an October 2022 memo from the state’s Department of Health. 

Still, supporters of safe storage legislation, including Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden — who is expected to lead the Vermont Senate as president pro tempore starting next month — argue there’s still a need for new legislation focused on gun storage and access.

“When you have children around, I think responsible gun owners are very, very careful with their weapons, and they lock them up,” Baruth said. “So what we're talking about are people who fall out of the responsible gun owner category, because they're either careless about it, or for ideological reasons they're determined not to secure their weapon. And that's unfortunate.” 

In a Dec. 15 report to the Legislature, Vermont’s Child Fatality Review Team — which examines youth deaths the state considers either unexpected, unexplained or preventable — found that in two instances in which a child died by firearm between September 2021 and September 2022, “ready access” to a gun was a contributing factor in their death. The cause of one of the deaths was found to be suicide; the cause of the other hasn’t been determined, according to the report.

Nationally, gun violence recently surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., The New York Times reported this month. The number of children who die by suicide with a gun has also risen to a historic high over the last decade, according to the Times, and gun accidents that kill children have also increased.

The Fatality Review Team’s report recommends promoting safe firearm storage. And GunSense Vermont, a gun control lobbying group, says one of its 2023 legislative priorities is legislation requiring “that a person shall not store or otherwise leave a firearm outside his or her immediate possession or control without having first securely locked the firearm in a safe storage depository,” or requiring “use of a tamper-resistant mechanical gun lock or other device” to keep the weapon from being fired accidentally. 

Vermont legislators have introduced safe storage legislation in previous sessions, but the bills have seen little substantive debate, according to Baruth. He said he expects the Legislature to take up the issue again next year, and said he thinks it would have majority support in both the Senate and the House.

“There’s really nothing more tragic than the death of a child. And this case is absolutely heartbreaking,” said Conor Casey, executive director of GunSense Vermont and a newly elected state representative, speaking about the Barre shooting. “You hear about a case like this and people often turn to thoughts and prayers — but we always say, you honor the victim by doing something about it to make sure it's not going to happen again.”

On gun reform, the state’s left-leaning legislative majorities will likely contend with Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who has shown little appetite for further such reforms since he signed a series of laws in 2018 that expanded background checks, raised the minimum age for buying a gun from 18 to 21, limited the sizes of magazines and banned bump stocks in the state.

In 2019, Scott vetoed legislation that would have required Vermonters to wait 24 hours before purchasing a handgun. And during last year’s session, he vetoed a bill that would have required a person to wait for a background check before buying a gun — closing what’s known as the “Charleston Loophole” — though he signed an amended version of the bill the following month increasing the waiting period from three to seven days. 

That law also affirms the ability of Vermont’s judges to disarm domestic abusers who are subject to an emergency relief from abuse order and prohibits the possession of guns in hospital buildings across the state.

“Here was a Republican governor signing these bills into law. I was quite proud,” Casey said, referring to Scott in 2018. “What happened to that guy? … The governor has gone from being an ally to being an obstacle to reducing gun violence in Vermont.”

Ahead of the 2023 session, cities and towns across Vermont have either adopted or are considering resolutions requesting the power to regulate guns — including measures aimed at storing guns more safely. GunSense Vermont is spearheading the effort. Scott said last month that he does not support municipalities making their own gun reforms. 

In a statement Tuesday, Scott spokesperson Jason Maulucci said the governor “believes the incident that occurred in Barre is a heartbreaking tragedy and he extends his sincere condolences to the Bunce family.” Maulucci also defended Scott’s record on gun reform, calling past legislation he has signed “historic.”

“The Governor isn’t planning to propose any changes to our gun laws this session, and he has questioned the practicality of proactively enforcing a potential safe storage law, but he’s always willing to listen to other points of view,” Maulucci said. 

New gun control measures would almost certainly face opposition from Republican lawmakers and the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, which opposed the bill aimed at closing the Charleston Loophole earlier this year. 

State Sen. Joe Benning, a Caledonia County Republican who will not return to the chamber in 2023 after running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, said he believes safe storage legislation would face opposition from rural Vermont residents who don’t want to wait for other people to come and protect them in their homes.

Benning said he thinks that legislation mandating an additional step before a gun can be fired — such as unlocking it from a safe or loading it with ammunition — could violate the article of Vermont’s constitution that gives people “a right to bear arms for the (defense) of themselves.”

“I understand why in an environment where, for instance, a 3-year-old gets access to a gun that shouldn't have had it, that can bring up a lot of emotion in people. It's a terrible tragedy,” Benning said. “But to use that emotional situation, and that hopefully isolated tragedy, as a reason to use a broad paint brush across the state — to me, that's just not justified under the Constitution as it stands.”

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.


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