DEC. 30, 2014
HAYDEN, Idaho — The details are shatteringly ordinary. A 2-year-old toddler, sitting in a shopping cart in a Walmart, his mother’s purse unattended and within reach as she shopped. Three girls, all under age 11 — relatives of the boy and his mother, the police said — tagging along. A frosty morning in the northern Idaho panhandle, the temperature in the teens. Holiday break. The clothing aisles near electronics, back of the store.
Then, shortly before 10:20 a.m. on Tuesday, as the store video cameras recorded the scene, the little boy found a gun in his mother’s purse and it discharged once at near point-blank range from where she stood, less than arm’s length away, said Lt. Stu Miller, a spokesman for the Kootenai County sheriff’s office. She died at the scene, he said, her death appearing to be accidental.
“He probably still doesn’t even know what has happened,” Lieutenant Miller said of the boy.
The victim, Veronica Jean Rutledge, 29, of Blackfoot, Idaho, about 380 miles from Hayden in Idaho’s southeast corner, was visiting family members here in this community of about 13,000 people bordering the resort town of Coeur d’Alene, about 40 minutes from Spokane, Wash. Both her parents and her husband’s live in the area, Lieutenant Miller said.
He did not know whether Ms. Rutledge had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Her husband came to the store to collect his son and the girls after the accident.
“This situation is such a tragedy, particularly happening so close to the holidays,” Lieutenant Miller said. Asked why the woman might have felt the need to go armed to the Walmart, he said that carrying a weapon was not particularly remarkable or unusual.
“It’s pretty common around here — a lot of people carry loaded guns,” he said.
This part of Idaho, about 100 miles from the Canadian border, is not part of the state’s famed agriculture belt, known for its potatoes, which stretches far to the south. Up here, evergreen forests, the blue expanse of nearby Lake Coeur d’Alene, and the deep historical imprint of the silver mines that defined life for decades starting in the 1800s, make it feel more like Montana and Washington, the states that sandwich it on either side.
“It’s a small-town atmosphere with a lot of tourism and a lot of growth,” said Stefan T. Chatwin, the city administrator, in an interview at City Hall, about three blocks from the Walmart, which sat closed, its parking lot mostly empty, on a stretch of U.S. 95 that wends down from British Columbia. The store is expected to reopen on Wednesday,
Mr. Chatwin also said that guns are a part of the culture here. The city amended its gun laws just last week, he said, to conform with state laws and make it clear that a gun owner is justified in firing a weapon in defense of persons or property.
Judy Minter, a self-employed artist who was working on an art display at City Hall, said that she too supported the right to bear arms, though she said she did not carry a weapon herself. The wisdom of when to go armed or not seemed to her to be more the question at issue in Tuesday’s accident.
“There’s a lot of people who do carry guns in this area,” said Ms. Minter, who had spent most of the day photographing bald eagles, a common sight on Lake Coeur d’Alene. “But for her to have it within reach of her child — that was not very smart.”