Hundreds of children are killed in accidental shootings in the United States every year.
Milyssa and Chip Bellamy of North Myrtle Beach know the grim statistics all too well.
Their 11-year-old son, Matthew, became one of them in January 2010 when he was accidentally shot by a 12-year-old friend while playing at the friend's house.
“Matthew had gone home with a friend to spend the night, and a loaded gun had been left on a bed in a guest room,” Milyssa Bellamy said. “Matthew's friend picked it up and as he did, it discharged and Matthew was shot in the heart. He died at the hospital.”
The Bellamys quickly discovered they were not alone. They began hearing others' stories and seeing similar tragedies in local newscasts.
“We honestly started to get a little bit angry,” Bellamy said. “We'd see something on the news that happened right here in our area or just across the line in North Carolina, and we'd say, ‘Didn't people learn from what happened to Matthew? Don't they get it?' But then Chip and I kind of had this ‘ah-ha' moment where we realized, ‘Maybe people didn't hear about Matthew.’ Maybe we need to get out there and tell our story and promote gun safety.”
They didn't waste any time. About six months after Matthew's death, they launched the Matthew Bellamy Project. The project's mission is to educate children and adults about the proper handling of guns, to encourage adults to take responsibility for unloading and locking up firearms and to encourage parents to ask about unsecured firearms before allowing their children into someone else's home.
“We're not anti-gun. Our message is all about gun safety,” Bellamy said.
It's an important message anywhere, but it may be especially impactful in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee. Four children have been killed in accidental shootings here since June.
Five-year-old Sha'Diamond Graham died in June 2012 after a gun she was playing with at a friend's house in Hartsville accidentally discharged. Two months later, 3-year-old Everett Tannor Avent was playing near his mother's car in Loris as she and her boyfriend worked just a few yards away. He found a gun, which accidentally discharged and fatally wounded the youngster. On Christmas Day, 2-year-old Sincere Smith of Conway grabbed his father's gun, which was sitting on a table and shot himself. He died en route to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Five days later, 8-year-old Easton Brueger died after his father accidentally shot him in the stomach while cleaning his rifle at the family's Bennettsville home.
Bellamy said her heart breaks when she hears stories such as these, but they remind her how important the work of the Matthew Bellamy Project is.
“We're never going to understand why our child died,” Bellamy said, “but this gives us some sort of purpose. At least we can take this tragedy and make something positive of it.”
Bellamy said the Matthew Bellamy Project should not be confused with anti-gun lobbies or movement. The Bellamy's were, and are, gun owners.
“Our oldest son is now 17 and my son and he and Matthew have hunted all their lives,” she said. “But they were always taught gun safety. Chip triple checks his guns before they're brought back into the house. We never thought about somebody else's house. It never occurred to us that people didn't lock up their guns.”
Since the tragedy, the Bellamys have learned many people don't lock up their guns and don't necessarily handle them with caution, either.
“We tell parents all the time, ‘Don't assume,' ” Bellamy said. “Don't assume that because you don't have a gun in your home, others don't. Don't assume others lock up their guns. Ask. People feel like it's not an easy conversation to have, but don't ever hesitate to ask these questions. Children are curious. If they come in contact with a gun, their natural instinct is to pick it up. That's why we've got to have these important conversations with our kids and with other adults.”
The Bellamys speak to organizations and hand out educational material at area festivals and events. The Matthew Bellamy Project also provides free gun locks.
“When we started this in 2010, we didn't know if we'd be going for a couple of months or for years. Since then, we've given away well over 3,000 gun locks,” Bellamy said. “We want to do everything we can to promote gun education and gun safety.”