Officiant fires gun to welcome bride, shoots grandson — and wedding goes on

Michael Gardner wanted to start his nephew’s wedding with a bang.

His plan involved shooting a blank from a revolver into the air to signal to the roughly 200 people gathered on Saturday that the outdoor ceremony, which he was officiating, was about to begin. But when Gardner cocked back the hammer of the gun, it slipped, and the homemade blank that he had used, which was closed off with glue, fired from the Pietta 1860 snub-nose revolver that he had borrowed, he said.

As the bride was about to walk down the aisle, what was supposed to be a day of love in Denton, Neb., turned into one of unexpected panic: The wedding officiant accidentally shot his 12-year-old grandson in the shoulder.

Despite the shooting, Gardner finished officiating the wedding.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Gardner said he regretted using a homemade blank; it was the first time he had done so. He acknowledged that the gun did not belong to him and that he had not used the firearm before it was accidentally discharged.

“It’s hard knowing you hurt somebody that you love more than life,” said Gardner, 62, of Odessa, Tex. “Common sense would tell you that you don’t carry a gun around with a blank in it, and that it would do you no good. But the gun was part of the wedding, and it was going to be used to summon the bride.”

The 12-year-old boy was taken to Children’s Hospital about an hour away in Omaha, and his injuries aren’t life-threatening, said Ben Houchin, chief deputy of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office in Nebraska.

Gardner has been charged with felony child abuse committed negligently and resulting in serious bodily injury. Gardner — an elected Republican official who has served as a commissioner in Ector County, Tex., since 2021 — said he turned himself in on Monday and was released on a $10,000 bond.

If convicted of the Class IIIA felony in Nebraska, Gardner could face up to three years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both, state law says. Gardner was arraigned on Tuesday and his next court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 3, he said. More charges are expected to be brought against him at that time, he said. The sheriff’s office noted that alcohol is not believed to have played a role in the incident.

Houchin told The Post that Gardner’s decision to use glue in the homemade blank is probably what led to the grandson’s injury.

“It was a horrible, horrible idea to do that,” Houchin said. “There is no doubt he did not want to hurt his grandson, but he certainly did.”

Questions surrounding the shooting have followed Gardner back to West Texas, where Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett said in a statement to local media that the judge’s office “has been made aware of an incident that took place over the weekend regarding Commissioner Mike Gardner.”

“We are glad to hear that all parties involved are safe,” Fawcett wrote, adding that the office will “continue to monitor for updates. We ask that you join me in praying for Commissioner Gardner and his family.”

Melissa Smith, co-owner of Hillside Events, the wedding venue where the accidental shooting took place, declined to comment. A spokesperson with Children’s Hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hillside Events says its rustic barn “makes a perfect wedding venue that is surrounded by lush green pastures, beautiful trees, rolling hills, and vineyard with a fresh country breeze, clear blue skies, and panoramic view.” Denton is about 12 miles southwest of downtown Lincoln.

After Gardner’s grandson walked a flower girl down the aisle, the 12-year-old took his place by his grandfather, Gardner said. That’s when Gardner pulled out the revolver.

“I removed the gun and the gun misfired on the way up,” he recalled. “I don’t know exactly what happened at that point.”

When Gardner realized he accidentally shot the boy in his left shoulder, guests jumped up immediately to assist the child, including Gardner’s brother-in-law, who is a paramedic, he said. The boy initially wanted to stay, saying, “No, Pop, I’m okay,” Gardner recalled. As the boy was being treated, Gardner somehow went back to officiating the wedding, with the bride seemingly unaware of what had happened, he said. Gardner later rode with his grandson in the ambulance to the hospital.

“I don’t remember it, but we finished the ceremony,” Gardner said. “The whole thing was pretty fuzzy because I couldn’t get my mind off of him.”

Houchin said Gardner had made his own blank round, placing black powder into a .45-caliber casing and gluing it shut.

“For it to be a blank, he had to put a sealant over it,” the chief deputy explained. “His decision was to use glue to seal the gunpowder in so that it would not fall out of the casing.”

Houchin added, “Sometimes we get hunting accidents and things like that, and people get accidentally wounded that way. But not with a homemade blank at a wedding.”

Gardner said he did not use a fully loaded blank because he did not want a loud bang, and that’s why he used a homemade blank. While he had shot blanks before, Gardner admitted that he had not shot a homemade blank before Saturday.

Gardner said he used someone else’s gun instead of one of his own because “it was more suitable for what I had in mind” for the wedding. The firearm is not considered an “unsafe gun,” he said.

“Anyone that handles any kind of weapon needs to know that weapon and know how it works and know what the possible dangers could be,” Gardner said. “You need to know that, and that is a huge thing.”

Houchin emphasized that in his 30 years with the sheriff’s office, he had “never seen a blank like this.”

“It was poorly made,” he said.

Gardner said he understands the shooting has put his political future in jeopardy. He knows he won’t be in office anymore if he’s convicted and said he won’t push back if it comes to that.

“That’s how it is,” said Gardner, who is up for reelection in 2024. “If you’re convicted, you don’t serve anymore. I’ve never tried to skirt that issue.”

He said the grandson he shot was one of his 20 grandchildren. The boy is a twin and loves baseball, hunting and fishing, Gardner said. He added that the 12-year-old has been discharged from the hospital and is back in Odessa.

Gardner said he spoke with the bride and groom, who said “they were sick about what happened.” But the family has supported one another since the shooting.

“Accidents happen,” Gardner said, before thanking God for his grandson surviving.

“God wasn’t surprised by what happened that day,” Gardner said. “He made sure things were taken care of. He knew what we were going to need that day.”

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