Lessons sought in case of Woodbridge boy, 4, who killed himself with gun

August 20, 2012

For some, there is a lesson in the story of a 4-year-old Woodbridge boy who got access to a handgun and accidentally killed himself.

For others, it is simply a tragedy that borders on the unimaginable.

But accident or not, the events that led to the death of Kyrell Kyyon McNeill could have stiff legal consequences.

The boy climbed into a relative’s truck July 25, found the loaded weapon and accidentally shot himself in the head, police said. He gained access to the gun by sliding through a cabin window, Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) said.

The longtime prosecutor said that he keeps a handgun in his vehicle’s glove compartment but ensures it’s locked and that he “is scared to death” of a child getting access to it.

Ebert said the owner of the gun bears responsibility. His office charged Jasmine Darnell Matthews, 27, Kyrell’s stepfather, with cruelty and injuries to children for leaving the loaded gun “in another family member’s unsecured vehicle,” according to a police statement.

Ebert said the charge does not “require or infer intent” and comes with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Matthews, who authorities say works as a security guard, lives at the house where the death occurred, in the 14800 block of Empire Street in Woodbridge.

“It is a tragic accident. . . . I don’t think he could foresee exactly how this would happen,” Ebert said. “But he could see that a young child could gain access to a weapon and harm himself. It was a negligent act, and that’s the basis of the charge.”

Matthews’s attorney did not return a phone message Friday seeking comment.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which lobbies for “creating an America free from gun violence,” said first and foremost the concern should be with the boy’s parents.

“I think we have to be respectful of a family going through a tremendous crisis,” Gross said. “I’m sure the hearts of everybody go out to the parents. I couldn’t imagine a bigger nightmare than that.”

But, he said, even random-seeming tragedies should be evaluated.

“I don’t think we should look at these as random tragedies and move on,” he said. “What’s the appropriate way as a civil society we should deal with these tragedies?”

Gross said that from swimming pools to bike helmets, new rules over the years have sought to ensure greater safety. “All anybody is saying is we need to do the same thing about guns,” he said.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which advocates for the rights of gun owners, said his concern was with the law under which Matthews was charged. Van Cleave said he finds it troublesome that Matthews could be charged under a statute when it seems there was no ill intent on his part.

“If the [authorities] want you, they’ll find something if they really want to get you,” Van Cleave said.

“They’re implying the father was torturing this child when he died,” Van Cleave said of the “cruelty and injuries” language of the charge. “Based upon the story, I don’t get that.”

He said the criminal charge casts aspersions on the thousands of law-abiding gun owners. In Virginia, it’s legal to have a gun and conceal it, with a permit.

“The vast majority of people are doing it right. Do [gun owners] need special treatment because we’re gun owners? No, we don’t,” Van Cleave said.

What both sides can agree on is the toll taken by the accident. “You’re horrified for the parents. I don’t think they could have predicted this tragedy,” Van Cleave said.

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