Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

Gun safety laws failed to stop death of 3-year-old near Tampa

TAMPA — Before Tuesday, Jadarrius Speights was known to neighbors at Avesta apartments as the little boy who rode his bike in the empty parking spaces near his home, occasionally waving to people he recognized.

"He was a cute little guy," said neighbor David Turner. "Very spritely and very mannerly."

Tuesday evening, Turner looked out his window at a growing crowd in the parking lot and saw the little boy for the last time, on a stretcher being rolled into an ambulance.

The 3-year-old accidentally shot himself with his uncle's gun, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, and his death Tuesday night plunged his family into grief, added his story to the long list that testify to the dangers of leaving guns near children, and resulted in criminal charges against his uncle, Jeffrey D. Walker, 29.

Tuesday night was a turbulent one in this apartment complex off N 22nd Street, just west of the University of South Florida. Sheriff's cruisers and media vehicles filled and illuminated the neighborhood into the night. Periods of quiet were pierced several times by the anguished cries of relatives, and once by a near-brawl between a few young men that deputies had to break up.

Wednesday brought little in the way of answers filling in the gaps in the story provided by the Sheriff's Office: Jadarrius had gotten hold of a 9mm handgun his uncle left in a backpack in the bedroom they shared. The 911 call came about 7:10 p.m. Jadarrius died later at Florida Hospital Tampa. His parents — Jasmine Bell, 21, and Trentin Speights, 22 — were in the next room when the gun went off.

Family at the apartment declined to comment Wednesday. The Department of Children and Families is investigating the death, said agency spokeswoman Terri Durdaller, but had not investigated the family before.

Walker, the uncle, declined comment to Bay News 9 on Wednesday as he left Hillsborough County Jail. He posted $2,000 bail and was released after being arrested on a charge of culpable negligence, a third-degree felony. Walker has never been arrested for a crime in Florida before, according to state records.

Walker is a cook at an assisted living facility, according to jail records. He has a concealed weapons permit, according to the Sheriff's Office.

To get that permit, the state requires an applicant to attend a firearms training or safety course and demonstrate "competence with a firearm," according to Florida Statute 790.06, which does not clarify what constitutes "competence."

But Florida Statute 784.05 is clear about leaving a loaded firearm within easy access of a child who then hurts or kills himself or someone else — it's a crime.

The law was instituted in 1989 after a rash of unintentional gun-related deaths involving children, and it separates Florida from Kentucky, where the parents of a 2-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed by her 5-year-old brother last week do not face charges. Police there have not definitively said they will not seek charges, but Kentucky does not impose criminal liability for negligent storage of a firearm, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Even with the culpable negligence law on the books in Florida, it's up to law enforcement whether to apply it.

On Saturday in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale, a 13-year-old boy accidentally shot his 6-year-old sister, who was critically wounded but survived. No arrest has been made in that case, although the Broward County Sheriff's Office says the investigation continues.

Some neighbors here agreed negligence charges were called for, but most had little to say.

Mary Bell, a relative, posted a picture of the wide-eyed boy on her Facebook page Wednesday.

"This was taken about a month ago at my house and now he's gone," she wrote. "God I know you make no mistakes. My nephew is now one of your lil angels. .. y'all pray for me and my family. May you rest in heaven 'scudda.' "

Times researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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