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Teen's death stokes gun law debate

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 14. 2013 1:01AM

Violation of the firearms law under which Danville's police chief has been charged needs to carry a stiffer penalty. Or the law needs to be better defined. Or it's already doing what it was intended to do.

So goes the debate in the aftermath of a teenager's death in Danville last month.

A Hollis father whose son fatally shot himself last year with an unsecured gun in their home paid a $500 fine under the same law Chief Wade Parsons is now accused of violating. A Hollis police supervisor says the punishment should have been stiffer.

"When you have a loss of life, that should enhance the penalty potentially or enhance the charge," Lt. Richard Mello said Friday.

The maximum penalty for negligent storage of firearms, a violation-level offense, is $1,000. And under that law, RSA 650-C, "A parent or guardian of a child who is injured or who dies of an accidental shooting shall be prosecuted under this section only in those instances in which the parent or guardian behaved in a grossly negligent manner."

The law applies only in cases where a child is younger than 16.

Mello said the fine should have been higher in the case of Anthony Hebert, whose 9-year-old son, Maximos, shot himself in the head in April 2012.

"There has to be some accountability here," Mello said, urging legislators to revisit the law's penalties.

Hebert, who pleaded guilty to negligent storing of firearms last November, could not be reached for comment.

The issue resurfaced last week after Parsons was charged after leaving his service weapon unlocked and accessible to a 15-year-old boy, who authorities said used the gun to commit suicide inside Parsons' home on March 11.

Concord attorney Penny Dean, an avid gun-rights supporter who is active in firearms legislation, said she didn't know the specifics of the Hollis case but believes the Danville chief should not have to face the gun charge.

"I'm the first person who will say the police should be held to the same standard as everyone else," Dean said. "Given the facts in this case, I don't think this person should be charged, chief or not. It's a horrible tragedy."

Asked whether the law applies if an unloaded gun is left accessible or a loaded gun is left out but a child doesn't touch it, Dean said that's the problem.

"I think this law is very nebulous, and I think it's not clear," she said. "In my opinion, it allows prosecutors way too much discretion in determining whom to charge."

She described a possible scenario in which a gun could be accidentally knocked to the ground and discharge without a child even touching it, but the gun owner could be charged.

Former state Sen. Burt Cohen, the prime sponsor of the law, which took effect in 2001, said it was meant to apply to loaded firearms, not ones that are unloaded. He recalled the measure might have been prompted by a child's death in another state, but said he has been interested in the issue of gun control since former President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.

"People certainly have a right to own a gun, and they should do what most gun owners already do: store it out of the reach of a child," Cohen said. "If you know children are likely to be present, this is a requirement you have to store it away from kids.

"There have been many examples of kids getting ahold of guns doing horrible damage."

Cohen recalled during debate on the measure that the "gun lobby was making this as a slippery slope, that any restrictions, any requirements about safe storage, would inevitably lead to the destruction of the Second Amendment, which is of course nonsense."

But he noted, "It was interesting how many gun owners were with me on this. They are parents; they have kids at home."

Dean suggested Parsons' position as chief may have been a factor in the decision to charge him. "Is this a case where maybe investigators (decided) because he's a chief we're going to go above and beyond the law and hold his feet to the fire?" she asked. "To charge him in this instance doesn't make sense given what the law is."

But when it comes to enforcing the law, Cohen said it shouldn't matter whether a police chief or average citizen is involved. "With rights come responsibilities," he said. "If you're negligent in storage, you will be prosecuted."

Cohen acknowledged that charging someone can add to a family's grief. "But there are many cases, it's not a family member who gets injured. ... The potential charge has to be an additional disincentive."

Jane Young, chief of the criminal bureau at the Attorney General's Office, said her office would not typically be involved in charging someone with such an offense; that would fall to the county attorneys' offices.

Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia LaFrance, whose office prosecuted the Hollis case, didn't respond to a phone message seeking comment. Anthony Hebert originally was charged with three counts of endangering the welfare of a child in addition to the gun charge, but Mello said those misdemeanor charges were dropped.

Rockingham County Attorney James Reams, who is prosecuting the Danville chief, told reporters on Friday that it's the first time his office has filed such a charge.

And that, Cohen said, indicates that the law is working as it should. "That shows reasonable, sensible gun laws do work and they do serve to help create safer communities," he said.

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