April 14, 2009— -- As he prepared to deploy to Afghanistan for his third tour of duty, Fort Lewis Army Sgt. Eric Autio wanted to make sure his new bride knew how to use the couple's gun so she'd be safe while he was away.
But in what appears to be a tragic accident, Autio was shot in the head and killed Sunday as he stood in their Olympia, Wash., home in front of the loaded gun his wife had pointed at him, police said. She called 911 and tried to resuscitate him but it was too late.
"They found Eric in the garage with a gunshot wound to the head -- he was obviously deceased -- and a very distraught wife," Thurston County Sheriff's Office Lt. Chris Mealy told ABCNews.com.
The gun that killed Autio was his own non-military issue, legally registered Glock, officials said. Police have not officially ruled the shooting accidental but Mealy said investigators are leaning that way. An autopsy, scheduled for Tuesday, and further interviews will yield more information, he said.
"He was trying to teach her to become acquainted with it and how to shoot," said Mealy, who did not release the wife's name. Autio was shot, he added, "right smack dab in the front part of the head."
A Fort Lewis spokesman had no comment today.
Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told ABCNews.com that while Autio's death was tragic, "unfortunately, it was not unique."
"In terms of people handing other people firearms in a casual way and talking about the firearms, it happens a lot," he said.
"These things are extraordinarily dangerous," Hamm said. "You've got to treat a firearm like a bomb that could go off at any moment."
According to Centers for Disease Control findings provided by the Brady Campaign, 789 Americans were shot to death accidentally in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available. There were 14,678 accidental gunshot injuries that same year.
Mealy said the couple, both 25 and married since January, had been out with family and friends Saturday night, drinking alcohol, but an "appropriate" amount. It was unclear whether alcohol played any role in the shooting around 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
Mealy said Autio's wife submitted to a blood test, but those results have not yet been analyzed.
Preparing for Deployment
Autio had been and still was an enthusiastic soldier who followed his stepfather and two older brothers into the Army, his stepfather, Richard Glenn, told ABCNews.com. He had already been deployed twice to Iraq, returning home most recently in October.
But this deployment -- scheduled for June, this time to Afghanistan -- was different. This time he was a husband who was nervous about leaving his bride alone in a new city, torn between his duty to his country and his new marriage.
"He was very concerned with her safety, all the violence that goes on in the U.S. now," Glenn said from his home in Kansas. "They were living in a big city."
Glenn said the shooting was purely an accident that took away the man he had raised since Autio was 4 years old.
"He enjoyed life. He was a very energetic young man," Glenn said. "He put his whole soul into what he was doing."
Glenn said Autio had been stationed at Fort Lewis for a little more than a year after having been transferred from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was a member of the 82nd Airborne.
"He was very, very patriotic," Glenn said. "He just liked the idea of serving your country."
Glenn said Autio and his wife had met in high school when she was best friends with Autio's sister. They began dating in 2004, he said, three years after they graduated from high school.
Mealy said no charges have been filed in Autio's death and his wife is being cared for by the Army. "She's being cooperative," he said. "She's very, very upset and distraught."
Neighbor Mary Moore told ABC affiliate KOMO that she was awakened by the gunshot Sunday morning. She had been planning to have the couple over for dinner that evening.
"I've been crying most of the day," she told KOMO. "They were so young. They were so young. They were very nice."
Soldier's Death Tragic but Maybe Not Unique
Mealy said this kind of fatality is rare for his office. When deputies respond to accidental shootings, he said, they typically result in either superficial injuries or none at all.
But Hamm of the Brady Campaign noted that guns in the home are at least a dozen times more likely to be used to injure someone in that home.
"When you point a firearm at another human being, there are lots of ways terrible things can happen," Hamm said.
Because reported data on firearm ownership varies from state to state, it is unclear how many Americans legally own guns, Hamm said. But there are an estimated 250 million firearms owned by civilians in the United States, he said.
The glock, he said, is a "fairly common" semi-automatic weapon, popular because it's reasonably priced and well-marketed.
Autio's death is the latest tragedy for Fort Lewis, the third-largest Army base in the country with about 30,000 soldiers and another 4,000 deployed.
One of its soldiers was found shot on base in the head April 7 and died a short time later. Army officials have not released his name or the details of that soldier's death.
Last month, military officials charged a soldier with involuntary manslaughter and several drug charges after a 16-year-old girl died in his barracks and another teenager was found unconscious after a night of apparent drug use.
In February, Fort Lewis announced the death of 41-year-old Staff Sgt. Sean D. Diamond, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
Also in February, according to various Seattle-area media reports, three Fort Lewis-based soldiers were arrested on assault and robbery charges in recent weeks in connection with two incidents when University of Washington students were robbed at gunpoint and assaulted.
In January, a Fort Lewis sergeant was charged with kidnapping, raping and torturing two women after he was reported AWOL. And in November, a sergeant was arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of his friend after a day of drinking. The medical examiner's office ruled the death a homicide, according to the News Tribune.