Two parents, one gun and a crusade in the name of Brooklynn

Darchel and Jacob Mohler lost their daughter Brooklynn, 13, when her best friend unintentionally fired a gun.

Story highlights

  • In June 2013, Brooklynn Mohler, 13, was unintentionally shot and killed by her best friend
  • An estimated 1.7 million to 2 million American children live in homes with unsecured firearms
  • So far this year, at least 212 minors have unintentionally killed or injured someone with a gun, study says
  • Brooklynn's parents are on a crusade to save other children and families from their pain

(CNN)About two months before a bullet killed her daughter, Darchel Mohler stood in the very kitchen where the fateful gun would be retrieved and played the role she had mastered: Overprotective Mother.

Her daughter, Brooklynn, had just turned 13 and Mohler visited Brooklynn's best friend's nearby home in Las Vegas to lay down some rules with the friend's single father. It was the sort of conversation that mortified Darchel's three kids.
When Brooklynn was visiting, she told him, there could be no boys. No alcohol. No going out after dark. If she ever got in a car, her seat belt had to be on.
    "I told him, 'The girls are teenagers, and we have to work together to get them through being teenagers,'" Darchel remembers. "I was the captain of Brooklynn's ship, and I was going to get her through the fog."
    She and her husband, Jacob, thought their bases were covered. But on the horizon was an issue they didn't foresee: Firearms.
    They never thought to address that one.

    'Don't be sorry -- do something'

    In 2013, 69 children under the age of 14 died from the accidental discharge of a gun, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brooklynn was one of them. But another comprehensive report on child gun deaths puts that number at 100.
    It's a form of tragedy that's bound to continue, gun control advocates say.
    An estimated 1.7 million to more than 2 million children in America live in homes where guns are not safely stored or secured. And children in America are 16 times more at risk of being killed in unintentional shootings than their peers in other high-income countries, according to the report, "Innocents Lost," spearheaded by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
    So far this year, at least 212 children, ages 17 or younger, have unintentionally killed or injured someone with a firearm, the group has calculated.
    The latest national headline-grabber came out of Chicago, when a 6-year-old boy grabbed a gun from the top of the family refrigerator and shot and killed his 3-year-old brother while playing "cops and robbers."
    Stories like this one kick the Mohlers in the gut -- and reinforce the work they do in their daughter's memory.
    By sharing their story through the Brooklynn Mae Mohler Foundation, their Facebook page "Justice for Brooklynn" and events in their community, the Mohlers are on a mission to make sure other families don't suffer like they have.
    They are not alone in this crusade. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America launched a campaign -- the Be SMART campaign -- which specifically encourages conversations about firearms in homes and is geared toward pushing for responsible gun ownership and storage.
    And on the legal front, 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted child access prevention laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which ostensibly should help prevent such tragedies.
    The problem, though, is that these laws impose varying levels of criminal liability on gun owners when firearms fall into the hands of children. Nevada is among 13 states that impose a weaker standard. There, an adult is only liable if he or she "intentionally, knowingly and/or recklessly" provides firearms to minors. As Jacob explains, if the friend's father had physically handed the gun to his daughter, he would have been held accountable in Brooklynn's death. Since he wasn't there, he was off the hook.
    Yes, the Mohlers wish the laws in Nevada had held the father of their daughter's friend responsible. They hate that people refer to such shootings as accidents when in their minds what happened to Brooklynn was pure negligence -- and absolutely preventable. But they've chosen to leave hot-potato, drawn-out political and legal battles to those who have time. What matters most to them requires immediate attention.
    The Mohlers want parents to ask if there are unsecured firearms in the homes where their children play. They want gun owners to pledge that they will safely store and secure firearms. And they want children to vow that they will stay away from guns.
    It's as simple as that.
    "There's no one who can argue with our message, and that's by design," says Jacob, a gunowner himself. "We do this not because we chose to. It chose us. When people say they're sorry, I say don't be sorry -- do something."

    What could have been

    Darchel, on a break from her job as a surgical technologist, thinks about Brooklynn and remembers how she couldn't wait to see what that girl would become.
    Brooklynn Mohler loved Disneyland. This photo was taken during a surprise mommy-daughter weekend to the park in February 2012.
    She was well-rounded: an honor roll student, a competitive gymnast and runner, a violinist. President of her elementary school, Brooklynn was a natural leader. She'd round up younger kids in the neighborhood to play school. She was the teacher.
    "Jacob and I were the principal and vice principal," Darchel says with a laugh.
    Real teachers, who knew what Brooklynn was about, would pass off old teaching materials for her to use.
    She exuded compassion. Darchel recalls wondering where Brooklynn's clothes had gone in middle school, only to find out her daughter had been giving them away to a girl she thought needed them more.
    Stray animals weren't allowed anywhere in Brooklynn's radius. The family already had three dogs, two of them rescues, but their backyard regularly served as a holding pen for others until they, too, found homes -- or space in a no-kill shelter.
    Jacob, a commercial and residential home inspector, had and still has two guns of his own. Brooklynn always hated them. She associated them with hunting and killing animals, which she, unsurprisingly, despised.
    As they've always been, the guns are locked in a large fireproof safe, bolted to the wall and floor. Jacob liked them for sport and enjoyed shooting clay pigeons. They've gathered dust since losing Brooklyn; the fun in them is gone.
    The children were taught early that guns were not toys. If they ever came across guns, their father told them, they should get as far away as possible.
    Brooklynn listened. She was shot in the back as she walked away.

    Not a prank

    Jacob was annoyed when he showed up at Brooklynn's friends house to pick her up on June 4, 2013. He'd been trying to reach her on her cell phone, to tell her he was close, but she wasn't answering his text messages -- which wasn't like her. The only reason she had a phone was so that her parents could reach her.
    When the door opened, her friend's little brother blurted out that Brooklynn was hurt. Jacob first thought he was being pranked.
    The friend was holding Brooklynn and said she thought she'd been shot. He thought to himself, "What the hell are you guys doing with a gun," but he looked at his daughter and couldn't see any blood or a wound. When he rolled her over, he spotted the hole through her lower spine. He went into panic mode, thinking then that she'd either die or be paralyzed.
    The story goes that the friend took a 9mm Glock from the kitchen cabinet. Her father had given her a couple of lessons and left it for her in case there was ever an intruder, Jacob says. That gave her a confidence she hadn't earned, he suspects. She thought it was disarmed, that she'd taken out the bullets, and was messing with it when it fired.
    The friend was freaking out while keeping 911 on the line. Jacob used the CPR training he'd had as Brooklynn gasped for breath. Later, he'd learn that the bullet tore through his daughter's spine before puncturing a lung and then her heart.
    "Stay with me! C'mon! Don't go!" he said as he worked to save her before the ambulance came.
    "I ultimately knew I was losing her," he says now.
    People who've lost loved ones to gun violence often recount that moment when they got the call. For Jacob, it wasn't getting a call but rather making the call -- to his wife.
    When Darchel answered her phone, it was her turn to think she was being pranked. She didn't recognize the voice on the other end and quickly hung up. When Jacob called back, she was slapped with reality.

    Channeling the grief

    Even as he was coming home from the hospital after his daughter died, Jacob remembers saying to his brother-in-law that something had to be done, something about guns had to change.
    Brooklynn used to dream that she would someday own a sprawling farm. It would be a safe haven for every unwanted animal in the world, her father says. When she first learned about chinchillas, she said she'd need a chinchilla wing.
    As they planned her funeral, they knew they didn't want a house full of dying flowers. Instead, they asked for donations to a no-kill animal shelter. To this day, people give to the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Brooklynn's name.
    Brooklynn, upper right, appears in her last formal Mohler family portrait, taken in December 2011. With her is her older brother, Levi; her parents, Darchel and Jacob; and her younger sister, Madisson.
    The Mohlers host an annual 5K Run for Safe Guns; the most recent drew 800 participants. Multiple times a year, they set up tables at events, like the National Night Out hosted by law enforcement, to talk to people, ask them to sign pledges and pass out free gun locks -- supplied to the Mohlers at no cost by the police department. If someone local emails to inquire about a lock, Jacob will hand deliver it. Almost daily, they receive notes from across the country through their Facebook page.
    The Mohlers have never spoken to Brooklynn's friend. For a while, Darchel says she tried to get to her; she wanted to know every detail of what happened that day. But she's never had the opportunity. She can only hope the girl has gotten help.
    About two years after the shooting, Jacob phoned the father.
    "I said everything I had to say," Jacob continues. He only stopped when the father began to weep. "I said, 'I don't want to listen to you cry,' and I hung up on him."
    Darchel says she forgives; she must in order to heal. There's no manual on how to navigate life after losing a child this way, but she says she, her husband and their two other children -- daughter Madisson, 12, and son Levi, 18 -- grieve together and she tries to model moving forward through the pain.
    Part of that means channeling her grief into this cause.
    "I grieve like every other mother, but I'm not going to give up. I'm not going to crawl under a rock. I'm not going to be quiet about it. She deserves more," Darchel says. "I have one life. The inevitable is death. I will be with her someday. And I will try my best while I'm here to give her voice and make sure no other family will endure this."
    The Mohlers want people to put children's safety above the need to have firearms so easily accessible. Risking the scenario that happened to Brooklynn -- and to her friend -- as well as to the two young brothers in Chicago show why.
    "It's too much to put on the child," she says. "We're the adults. We're the responsible ones."