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Careless Firearm Storage Could Mean Jail : 5 Child Shootings in Week Spur Gun Safety in Florida

June 16, 1989|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Ten-year-old Sean Smith, looking for a video-game cartridge in his parents' bedroom, found a gun instead. He took it into his small hand. He pointed it. He fired.

Seconds later, he dashed for the phone, a hysterical boy with a bleeding little girl on the floor nearby. "I didn't know my dad's, my dad's gun was loaded . . . " he cried out.

911 Operator: OK.

Sean: . . . And I shot her, I didn't mean to.

911: OK, OK, listen. Who did you shoot, Sean?

Sean: My sister. I didn't mean to.

911: OK, Sean, don't worry. Everything's OK. How old's your sister?

Sean: Please don't die. Please, God, please don't be dead.

Erin Smith, age 8, did die. And, tragic as that was, the June 5 shooting would probably have gone unnoticed by Florida lawmakers but for a cluster of four similar incidents since then that have stunned this state like Biblical admonitions.

On Monday, the Legislature will consider--and most likely pass--an unprecedented gun-safety bill that would punish those who leave firearms within the reach of children.

Under the proposed law, if one child kills or disables another with a gun that has been left accessible, the owner of the weapon--including any parent--would be guilty of a third-degree felony.

The crime would be punishable by up to five years in prison. Merely leaving a gun accessible to someone under 18 years old would be a misdemeanor, punishable with a 60-day sentence.

"The concern I would have as a parent is that my child is visiting a neighbor, and that neighbor hasn't taken the same precautions, and my child is killed or hurt in someone's home," said Florida Gov. Bob Martinez.

This week, Martinez announced that the gun bill would be taken up during a special three-day legislative session that he originally wanted to restrict to the topic of turnpike expansion.

But the rat-tat of the child shootings changed his mind. Sure, they were all accidents, but isn't somebody accountable? many asked.

'We Need It Badly'

"People must be responsible for the guns they acquire," said Rep. Harry Jennings of Sarasota, the retired Army colonel who is the bill's sponsor. "This isn't a gun control bill; it's gun safety. And we need it badly."

June 5: In Miramar, northwest of Miami, Sean Smith found his dad's black leather holster in a dresser drawer. He couldn't resist the impulse to point the .38. To yank the trigger.

The blast surprised him. He thought the gun was empty. His little sister slumped over. The bullet had struck her in the upper left chest, and she was dead in minutes.

June 6: In Orlando, Scott Feltner, 10, was playing at the home of his best pal, Barry McDonald, 13. It was Barry who found two handguns in his father's briefcase. He wanted to show Scott how to load and unload them.

Not all the bullets were emptied from the .357 before he aimed and fired. Scott, wounded in the head, died almost immediately.

June 7: In Rosemont, outside Orlando, 4-year-old Evie Sue Hagan was shot in the head. Police still are not sure how it happened. Her brother David found the .22-caliber revolver in a cabinet above the refrigerator. He is just 6.

At the time, their parents were at a church service. David Hagan Sr. is choirmaster. An older daughter was baby-sitting. Evie remains in critical condition; there is little hope she will ever lead a normal life.

June 10: In Odessa, near Tampa, two brothers pulled their father's .38 from a chest of drawers. Jonathan and Jeffrey Diaz, 13 and 9, wanted to see how fast a bullet would travel.

Jeffrey was running down the hall when Jonathan fired. The younger boy was hit in the back. His condition remains critical.

June 11: In Tampa, 4-year-old Silvio Pierre found a .25-caliber pistol under the living room couch. His father was out, his mother upstairs.

Silvio pointed the gun at himself. The bullet pierced his chest. His condition also remains critical.

"Lesson in infamy," read the headline of a recent editorial in the Miami Herald, linking the shootings. "How many more children must die?" asked the St. Petersburg Times.

Campaigns for gun safety are suddenly at full speed. Oddly enough, just weeks ago, an earlier incarnation of the proposed gun law died a lonely death.

Refrigerator Law Cited

Rep. Jennings, the sponsor, modeled the law on a Florida statute that forbids the abandoning of a refrigerator with the door affixed. Too many children had locked themselves in the discarded appliances.

But Jennings found out that there was a big difference between guns and refrigerators. His bill made it through the House, but not the Senate. "The gun nuts won't tolerate any legislation with the word gun in it," he complained.

Now, one bloody week in June has changed that, and Jennings finds himself driving a bandwagon with little in its path.

At first, the National Rifle Assn. opposed the resurrected bill, arguing that it would turn law-abiding citizens into felons. But, now, even the NRA's local affiliate supports the measure so long as gun owners cannot be held criminally liable for stolen weapons.

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