The Sheriff's Office is giving away 1,600 gun locks, which it says can prevent accidental shooting deaths in the home.
LARGO - Jeanne Caroline doesn't own a gun. But she knows better than almost anyone how valuable gun locks can be.
A gun lock, after all, could have saved the life of her son.
Instead, 12-year-old Sean Caroline was accidentally shot to death by a classmate last autumn. The .357-caliber Magnum that fired a round into Sean's head was unlocked, loaded and stored under a couch in his friend's home.
"I never wish for any parent to feel the pain I feel," Jeanne Caroline said Friday. "It's an illness that will never be cured."
Local gun owners now have the opportunity to make sure what happened to Sean doesn't happen to a child in their home.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office just received 1,600 gun locks from the gun-safety group Project ChildSafe. The Sheriff's Office is giving away the gun locks, which prevent guns from firing.
"It's priceless," crime prevention Deputy Denise Nestor said. "What's the value of a human life? It's priceless."
Nestor said if gun owners are wary of gun locks, they should consider what it's like to stand in the shoes of Louis S. Mevec. He is the father of the boy who shot Sean Caroline to death.
Prosecutors have charged Mevec, 52, with culpable negligence in connection with Sean's death. He was charged with that crime because police said he kept the loaded gun under the couch. His two sons knew where the gun was kept.
Though gun owners in Florida aren't required to have a gun lock, Nestor said they should consider how it would feel to know their gun killed a child.
"Knowing his gun killed that child, he has to live with the decisions he made by not locking up that gun for the rest of his life," Nestor said. "And that's tragic. Don't let that happen to you."
Despite arguments by his attorney in court Friday, Mevec will face a charge of third-degree felony culpable negligence in Sean's death. If convicted, he could get up to five years in prison. He is scheduled for trial June 15. Jeanne Caroline and about 30 of her friends and family were in court Friday afternoon to watch what could be Mevec's final hearing before his trial. They all wore T-shirts printed with Sean's photograph.
Mevec's 14-year-old son, who also is named Louis, was sent to a residential treatment program in October after he pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge.
Nestor said the incident could have been avoided had the senior Mevec taken proper precautions.
About 40 percent of all homes with children have guns inside them. Only about 39 percent of gun owners lock their firearms, leaving a lot of guns easily accessible to children.
In 2000, 193 children were killed by gunfire in accidental shootings. Another 1,007 took their own lives with guns, while 1,776 were murdered with firearms, according to national vital statistics. In fact, studies show children are more likely to be killed by a loaded gun in the home than by an intruder.
Sheriff's officials suggest gun owners also lock their gun in a cabinet or gun vault. Ammunition should be kept separate and the keys to everything should be kept out of kids' reach.
But what if an intruder breaks in? Won't it take too long to unlock the gun?
Not if you plan correctly, Nestor said.
She suggested gun owners plan and practice fetching their gun if an intruder enters. She said it's not hard for a gun owner to have their gun out, unlocked, loaded and ready in less than a minute.
"It's just like if your house is on fire, you know where the exits are. You practice that," said Jeanne Caroline. "And that's what should come with the responsibility of owning a gun."
Nestor said the gun locks the Sheriff's Office is giving away are good for semiautomatics, pump-action shotguns, revolvers and bolt-action rifles.
She said the tragedy of Sean Caroline's death should prompt any gun owner to get a lock. "All the lives that were affected, the family whose household had the gun and, of course, the victim's family," Nestor said. "Everybody suffered from that gun not being locked."FREE GUN LOCKS AVAILABLE
Interested in getting a free gun lock? On weekdays, call the Sheriff's Office crime prevention unit at (727) 582-5600 or visit the office at 11473 Ulmerton Road. After hours or on weekends (including this weekend) you can pick up gun locks at the Sheriff's Office main building, 10750 Ulmerton Road, Largo, or the North District Office, 737 Louden Ave., Dunedin.