Reports about children, loaded guns and accidental deaths are painfully familiar to all of us in the news business -- and the latest local tragedy in Woodbridge is as moving as any. On Monday afternoon, a 13-year-old girl was at the home of a 17-year-old neighbor, who was showing her and a 15-year-old boy his father's .44-caliber magnum handgun. According to police, the 17- year-old passed the gun to the other boy, who pulled the trigger, hitting the girl in chest. She died shortly thereafter. Police regard the shooting as accidental because evidently none of the three realized the gun was loaded.

We understand that accidents such as this one will happen, no matter what protections are -- or should be -- on the books. What is so troubling about stories of this kind is the faith they show so many law-abiding Americans have in handguns as a form of protection against criminals, as useful things to have around the house.

We're not even talking about those who may have special gun collections or those who use firearms for sporting purposes -- most of whom have safety training or a least some sense of security precautions. There are so many others who keep handguns in their homes with a false sense of security -- and never mind the odds against the gun's ever being used successfully for self-defense.

How often does a loaded handgun at bedside fend off a housebreaker? Or isn't it just as likely to blow away a neighbor, a relative, a disoriented drunk or some other nocturnal visitor with no crime in mind? And if that household gun is unloaded and secured properly, how handy will it be against that burglar/murderer/rapist?

Those manufacturers and their heavily financed lobbyists who push handgun sales and fight every last legislative move to curb the Gross National Stockpile of Loose Firearm will argue that people have all kinds of potentially dangerous items around the house -- medicines, kitchen knives, electrical appliances and staircases, to cite some favorites. But aren't these just a little more useful than a loaded handgun -- and a little less threatening? Why invite the tragedies of accidental death that keep coming across editors' desks with such sickening frequency?