Twice in the last four months State Attorney R.J. Larizza was asked at local press conferences why his office so rarely prosecutes instances of gun negligence–guns illegally left unsecured or within reach of children.
“Without knowing the circumstances and looking at the actual reports when they come to us. I can’t give you a detailed answer,” he said in February. “But I can tell you that it depends on the facts and the circumstances, truly whether or not we would consider it to be a crime, and a crime that we could prosecute. But it’s a point well taken. It’s a point well taken.”
Answering a similar question in May–just before a press conference related to the murder of 16-year-old Noah Smith in South Bunnell last January-he said “it’s not an easy statute to prosecute,” but that “typically, if you leave it unsecured, and if you get an access to a child, that’s where we’ve prosecuted, but not necessarily for not securing the gun as far as that statute goes, but more of a child neglect or even a principal to a manslaughter.”
Two days later, Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the home of Jolani Hood-Sharma, a 37-year-old resident of County Road 13 in Bunnell, in response to a shooting. Hood-Sharma’s 13-year-old son had accidentally shot himself while playing with a gun, and had to be taken to Halifax hospital’s trauma unit.
Deputies established that Hood-Sharma had left the firearm unsecured. But they didn’t arrest her on any charge related to that. She was arrested for violating terms of a prior injunction, which ordered her not to have possession of any firearms. Her son went to the hospital. She went to the Flagler County jail. She posted bail on $1,000 bond the next day and was released.
It was only after the State Attorney’s office reviewed the case that, last week, prosecutors filed an additional charge: culpable negligence with an unsecured firearm causing an injury to a minor, a third-degree felony. In an echo of Larizza’s comments at those two press conferences, it is a rare instance of such a charge getting filed in Flagler.
The 13-year-old boy had told authorities he had no thoughts of self-harm. He had been playing with the .45-caliber Hi-Point gun when it discharged. The boy told authorities he did not know it was loaded.
According to her arrest report, Sharma-Hood, 38, told authorities that the gun belonged to the boy’s father, who is incarcerated. She said she usually keeps the gun in the garage but got worried that it would spontaneously discharge because of the heat. So she kept the gun under her mattress in her bedroom, though her bedroom is unlocked and accessible to all members of the family. She said she told the boy to stay out of the bedroom on many occasions, but he’s continued to go in there and rummage around.
She was watching television when she heard a loud bang. At first she thought her son had fallen off a bunk bed, only to discover what had really happened.
The charge is a third-degree felony, exposing Hood-Sharma to a maximum of five years in prison if convicted, though any prison time at all is unlikely, even if convicted on the same charge, for someone with no prior record–and judges typically withhold adjudication on a first conviction, so she would not even be considered a felon. (In comparison, merely writing a threat to someone, without causing actual injury, results in a second-degree felony and up to 15 years in prison under Florida law.) The State Attorney’s Office filed its felony charge on June 20.
Hood-Sharma was re-arrested on that charge on Tuesday afternoon. She remains at the Flagler County jail on $10,000 bond, with a judge’s order to have no contact with her son.
Every year, according to the Brady Campaign, a gun-safety advocacy organization, eight children 17 or younger every day in the United States are unintentionally shot and either injured or killed in so-called family fire, due to an unlocked or unsupervised gun in the home. Parents and guardians are rarely prosecuted.