Walmart gun discharge resonates in community

Herald Staff Writer

JASPER — People are still talking about a Sunday incident in which a man accidentally discharged a handgun inside the Walmart Supercenter.

But, although tongues are wagging, Jasper Assistant Police Chief Nathan Schmitt said his department received just a single call alerting them to the 10:28 a.m. incident at the 4040 Newton St. location on the city’s north side. And that lone call came from one of the police department’s own off-duty dispatchers who was relatively close to Kenneth D. Pirtle, 65, of 323 Dogwood Court, Dale, in the front portion of the store when the incident occurred.

“We were just a little bit surprised — or disappointed — that only one call came in,” Schmitt said.

Photo courtesy Janet Schnell
According to police, the round exited Pirtle’s pant leg and struck the vinyl/concrete floor where it ricocheted upward and lodged in a wall.

Janet Schnell of Huntingburg was shopping in the back of the Walmart at the time and did not hear the shot. When she learned what happened, Janet indicated she was “creeped out” by the seeming normalcy of the scene at the checkout counter where the incident occurred and what she saw as a muted response.

“We are doing a great job addressing school safety but I believe we need to address community safety response,” said Janet, who is a psychiatric social worker.

Information supplied by the dispatcher let officers know the gunshot was accidental in nature and the scene was secure.

“Everything was business as normal when officers arrived,” Schmitt said. “This guy was kind of standing off to the side.”

Pirtle told officers he was carrying a .40 caliber handgun in his front pocket. Police determined there were other articles in Pirtle’s pocket that might have played a factor in the handgun accidentally discharging.

Police said Pirtle told them he placed his hand into his pocket to retrieve an article when the firearm discharged. Authorities said the round exited Pirtle’s pant leg and struck the vinyl/concrete floor where it ricocheted upward and lodged in a wall. Pirtle suffered minor burns to his leg but refused medical treatment, police said. No other injuries were reported.

Pirtle was not taken to jail because officers determined the incident was simply an accident, according to Schmitt. He is being cited into court where he will have to answer to a Class D felony count of criminal recklessness with a firearm. The weapon, a brand of pistol called a Kahr with no external safety, was confiscated as part of the investigation. Police still have it.

The Herald could not reach Pirtle for comment.

In regard to Pirtle’s incident in Jasper and the path taken by his ricochetting round, Schmitt said, “He’s extremely lucky.”

The case turns out to be more common than folks might think.

On May 24, at a Walmart store in Columbus, a .22-caliber pistol fell from a 56-year-old man’s pocket, discharged when it hit the floor and the bullet struck a 26-year-old woman in the upper arm. She was pushing her newborn son in a shopping cart at the time.

The victim was treated at the scene and declined to be transported to a hospital. The gun owner, who had a permit for his handgun, was not charged with a crime.

A week before that, on May 17 at a Walmart in Phoenix, a shopper accidentally shot himself in the leg but, again, the injury was not life-threatening.

On average, one person per day contacts the Jasper Police Department to initiate the process to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun, according to Schmitt. At least in the last couple of years, most of those people have been new applicants seeking a lifetime concealed carry permit ($125 in fees), versus a four-year personal protection permit ($40 in fees).

Applications for a concealed carry license include electronic fingerprinting and a background check.

The Indiana State Police’s firearms division reviews and verifies information on the application. If the applicant has never been convicted of a felony or domestic battery and is not shown to have mental health issues, a license is granted.

The Indiana State Police firearms division’s records for the first quarter of this year indicated 4,174 Dubois County residents — about 1 in 10 — had concealed carry licenses (3,479 men and 695 women). Statewide, there are 557,789 active licenses (434,253 men and 123,536 women).

Law-abiding citizens carrying legal firearms are not a problem, Schmitt said, “but people just need to be extremely careful.

“You cannot take it for granted for one second what you possess and how dangerous it can be.”

Schmitt said it is strongly recommended that off-duty police officers carry firearms. He does 95 percent of the time.

Sgt. Philip Hensley, an Indiana State Police spokesman at the Jasper post, said it is well within someone’s Second Amendment rights to carry a concealed weapon as long as they are upstanding citizens with a permit.

“As a police officer,” Hensley said, “I will not ask someone who legally carries a weapon why they feel the need to do so because I know personally I have my own reasons as to why I carry. What I will stress to people who carry is that first, they carry properly, i.e., carry your weapon in a holster. Too many handguns have light triggers and can be discharged by something getting inside the trigger guard, just like in this situation.”

Hensley also stresses that people who decide to carry a firearm are tasked with being proficient with it.

“If you are going to own and carry a handgun, you should know exactly how to handle it and how to shoot well with it,” Hensley said.

Some places, such as city parks, festival grounds and Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, post that no weapons, knives or firearms will be allowed inside the park.

“It is private property,” Hensley said, “and they are within their property rights to ask that of you.”

Except for signs posted on property specifically cited in state law as off-limits to gun owners with carry licenses, such postings do not have the force of law. Holiday World could not confiscate a gun, Schmitt said as an example, but park officials can deny access or ask someone already inside to leave the park if they have weapons.

Indiana lists sites expressly off-limits to concealed weapons in multiple statutes, not just in one law, Schmitt said. Sites off-limits to concealed firearms include commercial airplanes, airports, a riverboat gambling boat, at the Indiana State Fair, courthouses and the Indiana Statehouse and Government Center. Lawful gun owners can have firearms in their vehicles on school property provided the driver is only transporting someone to or from a school event. Otherwise, the public cannot bring guns into schools, day-care centers or school buses.

Schmitt and Hensley each mentioned a June 8 shooting rampage in Las Vegas in which a citizen in a Walmart with a concealed weapon did the responsible thing but was still one of the five left dead.

Jerad and Amanda Miller, formerly of Lafayette, were the husband and wife with radical anti-government beliefs who ambushed and killed two on-duty Las Vegas police officers in a pizzeria where the officers were having lunch. They then stormed into a Walmart, announced they were starting a revolution and shot the citizen carrying a gun who was trying to stop them before they died by gunfire.

The citizen legally carrying a concealed firearm took it upon himself to confront a shooter, according to Hensley.

“What he didn’t realize,” Hensley said, “was that there were two shooters; however, he did the responsible thing as a firearm carrying citizen.”

Hensley said that man, bystander Robert Wilcox, “should be considered a hero.

“He may have saved lives by the actions he took.”

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