NAUGATUCK — Twenty-five years have passed since a tragedy rocked this community and devastated the lives of a borough family.
In that time, the family has shared its grief in an attempt to help protect children around the nation.
On June 22, 1989, 12-year-old D.J. Kenney found a loaded .22-caliber pistol in a bedroom at his friend’s house on Hemlock Road. What happened next is unclear to this day, but somehow the pistol went off and D.J. was shot in the head. He died at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury.
In the months that followed, the pain D.J.’s family felt turned to anger over laws that did not prove strict enough to protect other children from harm and prosecute gun owners who do not keep their guns in a safe location, leading to a tragedy.
They decided to do something about it.
Susan Kenney, D.J.’s mother, founded a nonprofit organization called GRIEF, an acronym for Gun Responsibility In Every Family.
She started small, going to church functions and school parent group meetings. Eventually, she would speak on national TV programs and in front of world leaders. Her story landed on The New York Times and 60 Minutes, and soon, people from all over the country were forming their own GRIEF chapters. A total of 25 were formed, each pushing for stricter laws in their respective states.
Susan Kenney told The New York Times in 1997, “I know I cannot bring him back, but I can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to other people.”
Working with lawmakers from Naugatuck and other parts of the state, Kenney lobbied for passage of the gun safe-storage act. It says, in general terms, that a person with a firearm must keep it secure in a lockbox or another container if he or she has reason to believe that a minor could access the gun.
Anyone who does not follow the law is subject to a misdemeanor charge. However, if someone does not properly store their gun and a minor who has been granted permission to be in the house gets a hold of it and shoots someone, the gun owner would be subject to felony punishment of up to five years in prison.
Previously, there was no law for such an offense, and consequently, Charles Zwick, a part-time police officer who owned the gun D.J. was killed with, was not found guilty after a Superior Court judge dropped charges following a hung jury in his case. The Kenney family never pushed for another trial, focusing instead on preventing another tragedy.
GRIEF pushed for several gun safety initiatives. One was to require stores that sell guns to inform people — in writing — that it is unlawful to not store guns properly. They also pushed for offering free gun locks in public places, such as police departments.
These laws went into effect in Connecticut in 1991.
Sometimes, Susan Kenney would face crowds of hundreds of people that were 80 percent against her, said her husband, David Kenney.
“It was very difficult, and we’d have to reiterate to people that we were not anti-gun,” he said, adding that he’s a member of the National Rifle Association and used to shoot with his son.
Still, the organization got results and started a nationwide conversation about safe gun storage.
“It’s hard to measure the results of the efforts, because if it works, people don’t say, ‘My child tried to get my gun, but it was locked up,’” David Kenney said.
The Kenneys believe their efforts helped, and some experts agree. Still, gun accidents remain a serious problem in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 800 children under the age of 14 were killed in gun accidents between 1999 and 2010.
The numbers might be higher had it not been for the Kenneys, who now live in Florida.
Kevin Knowles, a former state representative from Naugatuck who worked with the Kenneys on the Connecticut legislation, said he was impressed with their dedication to the cause.
“They wanted to use their pain for the betterment of others,” Knowles said. “As a state rep, you hear of cases all over the state. This one hit home because it was someone right in our community. They fought hard.”
Former Naugatuck Police Capt. Jim Fortin said he remembers the incident vividly, as well as the dark days that followed.
“Certainly we made even greater attempts to try to educate children about guns, and we were giving away gun locks all the time,” he said.
Though they are no longer running GRIEF, the Kenneys still spread their message. Recently, David Kenney sent a letter to the editor of The Sunday Republican, encouraging people to be safe.
“Children feel the excitement of a few months of no homework and fewer schedules and become more care free,” he wrote, calling June 22, 1989, the worst day of his life. “But as parents and grandparents, we must also remember the needed safety in the home, as well as outside.”
He continued, “please secure your home from the possible dangers of not just guns, but anything that may bring harm, especially since most of this is preventable, not an accident. Be safe and have a full and happy summer.”