The night Amanda Simpson told her husband she wanted to break up, he held his Kimber handgun to his head. He intended to die by suicide, he told her, but stopped when he heard one of their three children wake up.
The next morning, Simpson, a 29-year-old nursing home aide, took the kids and the gun — the firearm disassembled and hidden in various boxes in her trunk — and left their Texas home. Justin Painter was voluntarily institutionalized that day in a mental health facility.
Under pressure from Painter, 39, she returned the gun soon after, with the promise that family members would keep it locked up and away from him.
One year later, he used that same gun to shoot and wound Simpson, murder their three children and her new boyfriend and kill himself.
In another state, this story might have had a different ending.
A collaboration between the Miami Herald, McClatchy and nonprofit online gun violence news outlet The Trace found that at least 131 children were shot and killed in domestic situations during the 12-month period from Valentine’s Day 2018, the day of the Parkland massacre.
The vast majority of these cases are murder-suicides, including one killing spree carried out by a North Dakota woman who Googled phrases like “how loud is a 22 pistol” and “why would a parent kill their child” hours before shooting her three kids and herself. The other significant portion were slayings by a romantic partner, often following previous instances of domestic violence.
Some evidence suggests that the varying death tolls seen in different states is due in part to a patchwork of laws and enforcement regulating guns and who gets to have them. Researchers say some states are safer for people at risk of deadly domestic violence. An example of a state on the other side of the spectrum is Texas, which had six more deaths related to domestic violence than California, despite the latter having 11 million more residents.
Simpson’s last night with her children started with a grocery run. On the ride there, she told Painter, whom she had divorced two months prior after months of separation, that she was moving on. She had a new boyfriend, Seth Richardson.
Painter was furious and stormed out of the grocery store before taking Simpson and the kids home. She and the children cuddled in her bed and ate pizza while watching the movie “Atlantis” before she dropped them off at Painter’s house around 10 p.m.
She woke at 6:30 a.m. for the arrival of Richardson, 29, who had just driven 16 hours from South Carolina to be with her. They fell asleep in each other’s arms, blissful at the start of their lives together.
About two hours later, Simpson awoke to a loud pop and a ringing sound that overwhelmed her senses. She didn’t know that Painter had just fired a bullet into Richardson’s left temple. It traveled through him and into Simpson’s shoulder, breaking bones in her neck, chest plate and a few ribs before stopping in her left side.
Simpson didn’t feel the bullet right away. She started screaming, “Seth, what’s going on!” but the ringing was so loud she couldn’t hear herself. She heard six more pops break through the ringing.
The fourth time she said it she heard a voice.
“Seth’s dead. The kids are dead.”
She managed to haul herself out of bed and grab her phone. She saw Painter standing at the foot of her bed holding a gun. He repeated himself.
“Seth’s dead. The kids are dead. I’m not gonna kill you. I’m going to leave you to live with it.”
With that, he tucked the handgun under his chin and pulled the trigger for the last time.
Simpson dialed 911 and clearly told the operator what happened, saying it over and over.
“I am trying my hardest to get somebody here because Seth is still gasping for air,” she said.
She stumbled to the living room, where the pain started to set into her arms. She saw a little foot on the ground. It was Drake, his lifeless eyes open. Her daughter was slumped on the couch, her blonde hair covering her face. Odin was curled on the floor. It almost looked like he was napping, until he coughed.
“Every day I see it,” Simpson said from her twin sister’s house in Virginia eight months later, where she is trying to make sense of the incomprehensible and has found a job at a PetSmart “It’s the last memory I have of them. I can be doing absolutely nothing, nothing at all, and it just pops in my head. I could be at work, grooming a dog. I could be watching TV. It’s just something I will never forget.”
In the hospital that day in Fort Worth, where surgeons removed the bullet, she created a few Facebook Live videos to inform her family and friends what had happened and to rage about how Painter’s earlier suicide threat wasn’t enough of a warning sign to stop this horror.
During the divorce, Simpson attempted to bring up the issue of Painter’s aborted suicide attempt, but since she was representing herself legally she didn’t know how to go through the proper channels. The judge never knew Painter had tried to kill himself, or that anyone was worried he might use his gun to harm someone.
Laws that save lives
In some states, judges have the power to take guns away if the person is at risk of self-harm.
They use what are called “red-flag laws,” which allow someone (often law enforcement, sometimes family, occasionally a mental health provider) to ask a court to prevent an individual from buying a gun and take away the firearms they already have. These instruments are called extreme risk protection orders and they can go into effect immediately, before a court hearing, and be extended as long as a year with a judge’s approval.
When states introduce these laws, fewer people die, research by Aaron Kivisto, a clinical psychologist with the University of Indianapolis, indicates.
In Indiana, gun suicides — by far the most common form of death by firearm — dropped 7.5 percent in the 10 years after the law took effect. When Connecticut started enforcing its law after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, gun suicides fell 13.7 percent, versus the 1.6 percent reduction seen before cops began strict enforcement, Kivisto’s research found.
Eight states enacted red-flag laws in 2018.
Red-flag laws don’t just help stop suicides, said Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor of nursing and longtime researcher of domestic violence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. In her work with domestic violence victims, she found women who may not want to file a restraining order can instead try to get the guns removed from the home and force their partners into treatment.
Plus, she said, abusers sometimes threaten suicide attempts as a form of manipulation to prevent a partner from leaving — like Simpson said her ex-husband did.
Dr. Susan Hatters-Friedman, a Cleveland psychiatrist and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University’s medical school, said there often aren’t clear patterns leading up to parental murder-suicide cases like Simpson’s.
“There’s often no history of abuse that brings them under DCF or child protective services,” she said. “It’s about catching the people with mental illness and getting them involved in treatment.”
Campbell said the absence of warning signs is often because the victim never reported incidents of domestic violence, which she called the “number one risk factor” for familicide.
In the more than a hundred cases of children killed in domestic gun violence situations since Parkland, the most common situation was murder-suicide by a family member. A handful of cases were murders by a romantic partner, and in those cases there were often clear signs of prior domestic abuse.
‘A huge loophole’
In October, LaShonda Childs, 17, was shot and killed in Dayton, Ohio. Her 28-year-old ex-boyfriend Trendell Goodwin was arrested and charged with her murder. She called 911 moments before the shooting to report that Goodwin was threatening her and her boyfriend.
“This dude got a gun pointed to my boyfriend’s head. I’ve got a restraining order on him,” she told the operator, the Dayton Daily News reported. “I’m scared. He’s got a gun. I can’t talk. … I can’t talk. I’m in a bad situation.”
Months earlier, he served jail time for a misdemeanor assault charge of biting and hitting her. The court ordered him to stay away from LaShonda, and her sister told the Dayton newspaper she filed for a protection order, but it was never served “because Goodwin kept avoiding it.”
Ohio has no laws covering gun ownership in domestic violence situations. That leaves federal laws, which block people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or the subjects of permanent restraining orders from buying new guns or keeping the ones they already have.
But those laws have “a huge loophole,” Kivisto said. They require the person to turn in their own guns to law enforcement. Some states have made the law more effective by sending law enforcement to retrieve the weapons or allow officers to seize guns at the scene when used in domestic violence incidents.
Those federal laws also apply only to current or former spouses, people who have a child together or people who live together, said April Zeoli, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s school of criminal justice. That leaves a large group of high-risk victims exposed; half of all domestic murders occur between people who are dating, she said.
When states expand their laws to include dating partners, Zeoli’s research found there’s an 11 percent drop in murders of intimate partners. If the law also includes emergency restraining orders instead of just permanent orders, her data show a 12 percent decrease in those killings.
Some states, like California, have gone further and expanded the law to block anyone convicted of a violent misdemeanor — domestic violence or not — from legally owning or buying a gun. That shows a 24 percent drop in intimate partner murders, according to her research.
She believes this dramatic drop is because the law targets a crucial step in the gun sale process — the background check. When a salesperson runs a check, the criminal history usually notes only a misdemeanor conviction without the context. To figure out if that misdemeanor is from domestic violence, which is the federal standard for barring gun sales, Zeoli said, a salesperson would have to access court records and do more digging.
Her research shows that restricting gun access leads to significantly fewer suicides and fewer murders between domestic partners.
“When more high-risk individuals are covered, homicide goes down. It is intuitive,” she said. “These laws really do — and research backs it up — have the potential to save lives.”
Living through it
In early December, Simpson sat on her sister’s couch in Virginia, where she moved after her children’s memorial, watching her nieces decorate the Christmas tree with their parents. Her sister announced, “Now it’s Aunt Amanda’s turn to put ornaments on the tree!”
Simpson unwrapped the collection of decorations she’d carefully curated over the years. One for each time she discovered she was pregnant. One for the Christmas each child was born and every Christmas thereafter. Some handmade by the kids.
Then she saw the ones from Myrtle Beach, the first — and last — trip she took with Richardson. When they first reconnected, after her separation from her husband, after years of on-and-off friendship, he paid all her bills so she could see him in his camper in South Carolina, where they blared Guns N’ Roses and drank in the woods.
Before she went back home, they swung by Myrtle Beach and took photos by the water. She picked up souvenir ornaments to remember the moment, the start of their romance: a glass vial filled with sand and shells and a glittery pink oyster shell decorated with pearls.
A year later, on the beige carpet of her sister’s suburban house, surrounded by walls covered in idyllic photos of the family, Simpson broke down.
“It was like the first time that I mentally just couldn’t take it for a second since it happened,” she recalled. “I lost it.”
She had to head outside to breathe and try to collect herself. Her sister hung the last three ornaments on the tree.
If you struggle with thoughts of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
Kevin Hall of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.