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Coe's irresponsible behavior

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Barney Fife was a well-meaning lawman, if something of a klutz. Early on, his boss decided to put a safe distance between Barney's handgun and his allotted bullet, which was buttoned away in the deputy's shirt.

The message: Authority and responsibility are two different things.

The lesson should be an enduring one for Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe.

Tampa's top law enforcement officer has managed to lose two handguns to street criminals in recent years. Exactly how is unclear.

After the most recent case, in February, Coe dragged his feet on calling the police, then gave conflicting stories as to how the theft occurred. Police haven't been able to trace the guns, because Coe never provided their serial numbers. He has been unwilling or unable to do so. That is not the sort of behavior we should expect from a prosecutor and former judge, particularly when Coe's sloppy handling was largely responsible for turning a loaded gun onto the street.

In the past several years, Florida has toughened penalties for irresponsible gun owners, particularly parents. It is illegal to store or leave a gun within the reach or easy access of a minor. The laws were aimed at reducing the number of children falling victim to, or taking part in, violent accidents or crimes.

Coe, unlike other irresponsible gun owners, does not face a five-year prison sentence or a $5,000 fine. His gun was stolen, and that exempts him from prosecution. Never mind that he left a loaded gun in an unlocked car.

But the incident raises further questions about Coe's judgment, adding to a pattern of behavior during his first term as state attorney that could reasonably be described as bizarre.

Coe is an enigma. But he is also the state attorney, and his actions should reflect his serious commitment to fighting crime, particularly as Coe nears what could be his second term _ and perhaps more dangerously, his third gun.