The death last week of 4-year-old Austin Williams of Morton was a tragedy, to be sure, any parent's nightmare. The boy was visiting his young cousins, age 2 and 5, at their South Peoria home when reportedly they came across a gun. Police say the loaded weapon went off as one of the kids, believed to be the 5-year-old, was holding it and Austin's parents were in another room. Nothing could be done to save Austin, who was shot in the head. By all accounts this was an accident. Yet it appears at this point to have been an all-too-avoidable one.

The death last week of 4-year-old Austin Williams of Morton was a tragedy, to be sure, any parent's nightmare.


The boy was visiting his young cousins, age 2 and 5, at their South Peoria home when reportedly they came across a gun. Police say the loaded weapon went off as one of the kids, believed to be the 5-year-old, was holding it and Austin's parents were in another room. Nothing could be done to save Austin, who was shot in the head.


Austin's parents are no doubt mourning their son's death, as are the relatives who lived in the home where this occurred. Nothing quite compares with the loss of a child, and all involved have our sympathies. By all accounts this was an accident.


Yet it appears at this point to have been an all-too-avoidable one, which is why Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons is contemplating a criminal misdemeanor charge, likely against the firearm's owner, who thus far has not been named. According to Illinois law, "it is unlawful for any person to store or leave, within premises under his or her control, a firearm if the person knows or has reason to believe that a minor under the age of 14 years . . . is likely to gain access to the firearm without the lawful permission of the minor's parent, and the minor causes death or great bodily harm with the firearm."


Some may view this as harsh, unnecessary punishment for a family already beating itself up without any help from anybody else. Nothing the state can do at this point will bring Austin Williams back. So what's the point?


The point is that future deterrence is a primary goal of this nation's criminal justice system. As is often the case in situations like these, what happens in the courts afterwards becomes less about those involved than about sending a message to others so that they might avoid the grief the Williams family is now enduring. Lyons is acting well within his discretion to charge here. We might add that this would be a class C misdemeanor, the lightest charge in Illinois. A small amount of jail time is possible, though we're not advocating it. We do need to know a little more about how this gun was stored and how these kids got their hands on it.


Look, similar laws exist in at least 27 other states, from Florida and Texas to Connecticut, in all cases with the objective of inducing parents to follow some frequently preached, common-sense gun safety tips - for starters to keep firearms unloaded, out of reach of kids, locked away or under trigger lock, and with weapon and ammunition separated. Laws and recommendations like those, along with awareness campaigns conducted by the National Rifle Association, have combined to gradually decrease the number of children who die in similar accidents.


Yet some folks still don't take these matters seriously. At least 104 accidental gun deaths in kids 10 and younger were recorded nationally in 2006.


Let this story be a lesson, as Lyons says: "Perhaps all gun owners can be encouraged to revisit the locations of their own handguns to make sure the location is a good one for all circumstances and that all guns are always secured away from children and visitors."


If that pertains to you, then do it now. Don't take the chance on experiencing the regret and remorse this family must be feeling.


Peoria Journal Star