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Editorial: Keeping guns out of the hands of Florida's children

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Parenting News

Authorities are still investigating the circumstances last month that ended with a 14-year-old St. Petersburg boy killing his 11-year-old brother in what the older child described as an accidental shooting. But the ingredients of this tragedy — a misplaced gun in the wrong hands — are all too familiar. Gun owners can help by better securing their weapons, especially as the summer vacation season approaches.

The 14-year-old told St. Petersburg police he had found a gun in an alley, then brought it home and accidentally fired the weapon while playing with it April 26. The boy who was killed, Amir Williams, was a sixth grader who played running back on the St. Pete Little Devils youth football league. Family members said the brothers were close; school was out that day and the boys were home alone with their 13-year-old sister, according to police.

Authorities said the gun had been reported stolen during a vehicle burglary two days earlier. Police are investigating how the gun wound up in the alley. Authorities also said the boy’s mother, who was not at home at the time of the shooting, didn’t know her 14-year-old had found the weapon and that it was inside the home.

This chain of events was a preventable tragedy. As Mike Kovacsev, the St. Petersburg police department’s assistant chief of investigations, said: “Kids make poor decisions occasionally.” Add a firearm to the mix and “it’s a deadly decision,” the assistant chief said. “You can’t take it back. You can’t put the bullet back in the gun.”

Stolen guns, especially from unlocked vehicles, have been a recurring problem throughout the Tampa Bay area for years. St. Petersburg police said about 250 guns were reported stolen in the city last year. In Tampa last year, four out of every five auto burglaries were to vehicles that were left unlocked. And nearly 200 guns were stolen from those unlocked vehicles.

Responsible gun owners don’t unnecessarily leave their firearms in vehicles — locked or unlocked. This is an invitation to every burglar canvassing the neighborhood and jiggling door handles after midnight. When it’s absolutely unavoidable to leave a gun in a vehicle, it should be placed in a lockable gun case or lock box.

While Florida law requires gun owners to store their weapons safely away from children 15 and younger, the law covers only homes and buildings — not vehicles — and is so hedged and ambiguous to make it difficult to enforce. The safety statute also doesn’t apply in cases where a minor “obtains the firearm as a result of an unlawful entry by any person,” creating an accountability loophole for tragedies involving stolen weapons.


Bills filed in the Legislature over the years to hold gun owners responsible for losing their weapons have gone nowhere. As Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said: “Where do you draw the line in criminalizing innocent behavior? Say you forgot the gun in the car. Do we want to make that person have a criminal record?”

But the sheriff also says gun owners must be responsible. To that end, the Pinellas sheriff’s office has aired public service announcements over local cable channels urging gun owners not to leave weapons in their vehicles, akin to similar warnings that government agencies make about not leaving children or pets in cars.

Don’t expect the Legislature to toughen criminal penalties anytime soon for mishandling weapons; law enforcement and the public are struggling to define what constitutes an innocent mistake versus outright irresponsibility. But even without any new law, gun owners can help by being conscientious about securing their firearms. That includes not leaving them in cars. With summer around the corner, promising its usual uptick in juvenile crime, there’s no better time to recommit.


Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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