Parents who don't lock up guns deserve to face charges

The Orlando Sentinel's Beth Kassab talks with FOX35 about recent incidents involving children who get their hands on their parents' guns.

No matter how you feel about gun control, I think we all can agree that a 4-year-old boy should not be able to grab a loaded firearm at home and accidentally shoot himself in the face.

And I think we can all see eye-to-eye when I say that a 12-year-old boy should not be able to get his hands on a loaded MAC-10 and haul it off to middle school in his backpack.

I'll even go out on a limb and say that gun advocates and gun haters can agree that a 16-year-old should not be able to pick up a gun at home and kill his 12-year-old brother because he mistakenly thought there was an intruder in the house.

These aren't hypothetical incidents.

All three happened right here in Orlando last week.

And all three have something else in common: Curious kids had access to firearms inside their homes.

We don't know all the circumstances of these cases, and no one has been charged. But we do know that in the past, failing to be a responsible gun owner in Florida often carries little legal consequence.

Here's the part where some of us will disagree: It's time to get tougher on people who put kids at risk by failing to do something as simple as locking up their firearm.

In Florida, gun owners are supposed to keep loaded guns in a locked box or secured with a trigger lock to keep them safe from children. Failure to do so can result in a second-degree misdemeanor.

That means if you leave your loaded Glock on the kitchen counter and a kid takes it to school, that carries the same penalty as driving with a suspended license. Possessing a little marijuana is a more serious offense, a first-degree misdemeanor.

No wonder some parents store their weapons so carelessly. The maximum punishment is a mere 60 days in jail, and that's rarely imposed.

During the past three years, the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office has received nine referrals from police agencies for such cases, but it didn't file charges in a single one. One other case is pending.

It could be that the state attorney instead filed stiffer charges, such as possession of a gun by a convicted felon because several cases involved adults with felony records, said Ryan Williams, a top deputy under State Attorney Jeff Ashton.

But the lack of charges filed, he said, also points to the complicated nature of the cases that often rely on the testimony of children against their own parents or guardians.

"Does that mean we shouldn't [file charges]?" Williams asked. "Of course not. We do the hard job of weighing the positives and negatives of whether we can succeed at trial."

Florida does provide for a stiffer charge if the minor obtains the gun and hurts or kills someone, even unintentionally. Then the adult who improperly stored the weapon can be charged with a third-degree felony.

The State Attorney's Office received 10 such cases during the past three years and filed charges in four of them, Williams said. Of those, one was found not guilty at trial and the other three took plea deals.

In cases where a child is killed or injured, prosecutors must consider whether to add to the family's misery by filing felony charges against a parent.

"Do we want to destroy that family?" he said. "Nobody likes to answer it's complicated, but it's complicated. Every case is unique and different."

Agreed — a family that loses a child already is suffering a punishment far beyond what any judge or jury could impose.

CHICAGO

More