Lueen Homewood was picking up a prescription Monday morning at the Sam’s Club on Harbison Boulevard when she heard a “horrible loud pop and then this screaming” behind her.
To her horror, a 4-year-old girl had been shot.
“I saw the gun on the floor... I saw a woman holding this little girl,” recalled Homewood, 62, of Columbia.
The girl was sitting in a shopping cart being pushed by her grandmother — an Aiken County magistrate — when she pulled out a loaded, small-caliber handgun from her grandmother’s purse and accidentally shot herself in the chest, Columbia police said.
Store employees immediately took the girl to a side room, grabbing first aid kits and other medical items off the shelves to treat her, Homewood said.
The girl, whom police have not identified, was taken to Palmetto Health Richland, where she underwent surgery. Police spokesman Brick Lewis said doctors told relatives there appeared to be “no major damage from the bullet.”
The girl was expected to be transferred later Monday to intensive care for observation.
Police identified the grandmother as Donna Hutto Williamson, 47, of Salley, in eastern Aiken County, who has been a magistrate since 1998.
No charges have been issued, and an investigation is continuing, said Capt. Thomas Dodson, head of the department’s criminal investigations division, who described the shooting as “tragic.”
“Improper carrying, storing or handling of firearms can result in damage and injury — and this is what we have here today.”
Williamson has a valid state permit to carry a concealed weapon, Dodson said. State Law Enforcement Division records indicate she has no criminal record in South Carolina.
Efforts to reach Williamson on Monday were unsuccessful.
Her mother-in-law, Inease Williamson, said Donna Hutto Williamson was distraught after the shooting — “just beating herself up; she is just so upset.”
S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who oversees magistrate courts statewide, said Monday she wasn’t aware of the incident and couldn’t comment.
Investigators hadn’t yet determined why Williamson was carrying a gun in the store, Lewis said.
Herself a grandmother of 13, Homewood can’t understand it.
“They say it was an accident, but it was an accident waiting to happen,” she said.
Peter Hamm, spokesman for the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Monday’s incident is “unfortunately ... all too common” nationwide.
“The best way to make sure that kids don’t get injured with a firearm is not to have a firearm around,” he said. “If you’re going to have a gun around a kid, you should have a trigger lock on it so you can’t operate the thing.”
According to a just-released report from the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, 3,006 children and teens died in 2005 in the U.S. from firearms — a 6 percent increase from 2004 — after more than a decade of decline.
The study was based on the most recently available data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The National Rifle Association, which advocates the rights of gun owners, did not respond to a request for information for this story.
Store officials referred questions about the incident to police.
“Everyone at Sam’s Club is deeply saddened by today’s tragedy,” Tara Stewart, company spokeswoman for South Carolina, said in a prepared statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the little girl and her family.”
There was no sign at the Sam’s Club telling customers they could not bring a gun into the store. Corporate officials did not respond to questions about whether store policy bans customers from carrying firearms in their stores.
People in South Carolina who have concealed weapons permits can’t legally take a gun into government buildings, schools or day care facilities — or into private businesses that forbid them.
The Sam’s Club was closed immediately after the incident but reopened later. The shooting occurred at about 10:50 a.m. near the pharmacy section toward the front of the store, Dodson said.
The girl is seen on a store security video reaching into her grandmother’s purse, which was next to her in the shopping cart, as Williamson was pushing the cart down an aisle, Dodson said. She then turned onto another aisle and was about half-way down it when the shooting occurred.
“It was fairly obvious the grandmother didn’t know the child was handling the firearm,” Dodson said, adding, “You certainly don’t let a child have access to the purse in the first place.”
The shot from the .22- or .25-caliber handgun went completely through the girl’s chest, Dodson said. Williamson is seen on the video holding her hands over her ears after the gun was fired, then grabbing her granddaughter, who slumped over in the cart.
About a dozen people are seen on the tape standing nearby when the shooting occurred, though no one else was hit, Dodson said.
Homewood was “so impressed with how the Sam’s Club people jumped right to it” and came to the aid of the girl.
Still, Homewood, who shops regularly at the store, said the incident has unsettled her.
“I’m going to be paranoid about people walking around with guns in their purses.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
To protect children from gun violence, the National Crime Prevention Council recommends:
Lock it up
— If you own a gun, keep it locked up, unloaded, and out of reach of children. Lock up ammunition separately. Use a trigger lock.
Teach that guns kill
— In television shows and movies, good guys rarely die; only the bad guys do. Video game characters have many lives. Talk about who is affected by gun violence: victims, their children, parents, friends and community. Discuss the consequences for the shooter and his family — such as jail time and guilt.
Explain how to act around guns
— Even if you don’t own a gun, a neighbor probably does. If children know how you want them to act around guns, they will be more likely to act safely. Teach kids four steps to gun safety: Stop; don’t touch; get away, tell an adult.