BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Prosecutors, saying they want to send a message about gun safety, took the unusual step of charging a New Hampshire police chief with negligent storage of a firearm after a teenager used the chief’s unlocked service weapon to kill himself last month.
Jim Reams, the attorney for Rockingham County, said Friday that Danville Police Chief Wade Parsons left his loaded Glock handgun on top of a safe in a closet at his home but did not “take that final step” and lock it away. He then left to run errands. While he was out, the 15-year-old son of Parsons’ girlfriend turned the gun on himself.
“It is my hope that out of this tragedy will come increased awareness by gun owners that they are responsible for the way they store their weapons,” Reams said a news conference.
Parsons knew the teenager was home March 11 when he left the gun unsecured, authorities said. He returned about 1½ hours later to discover the boy’s body. Under the statute, anyone who “knows or reasonably should know” that a child could gain access to a gun without permission is guilty of a violation if the child uses the gun recklessly.
Reams and other law enforcement officials said they could not remember such a charge being brought in New Hampshire. In Massachusetts, guns must be stored in locked containers or with locked safety devices that render them inoperable except by the owner. The law was successfully prosecuted seven times in 2011, according to a report by the Massachusetts House Post Audit and Oversight Bureau.
In this small town of long wooded roads in the southeast corner of New Hampshire, Parsons has been chief since 1995 and is a popular and respected figure.
As news of the death spread and shocked acquaintances of the boy flooded a Facebook page in his honor last month, condolences also came to the chief.
Shawn O’Neil, a selectman in Danville, said Friday that Parsons was devastated by the boy’s suicide and that the charges “won’t bring him back.”
“Nothing the state of New Hampshire can do can match the punishment he’s giving himself,” he said. “He’s a kind, gentle man.”
O’Neil said that police chief is an elected position in town. O’Neil said it was not for him to say whether the charges were appropriate, but noted that if the teenager had been a year older, he would have been considered an adult under the negligent storage statute.
“It’s a lot different than leaving a gun on the table around a 5-year-old,” he said.
Still, some said that the charge showed that no one is above the law, and that carelessness with guns can have terrible consequences.
“The law’s the law, and we’re not exempt,” said Mike Sielicki, police chief in Kensington, N.H., and an officer of the state’s police chiefs association. “You have to store your firearm safely.”
Reams said the case was handled without regard to the chief’s position. He said public pressure to bring charges did not play a role in his decision.
“The statute is pretty clear,” Reams said. “The chief failed in his responsibility to secure his weapon. We treated it like any other case coming in.”
Reams said it was the first time he had brought such a charge in his tenure as a prosecutor.
Parsons will be summoned to court on the violation, which carries a maximum $1,000 fine. The charge is not criminal.
Parsons, who kept his job, could not be reached for comment Friday. He cooperated fully with investigators, Reams said.
Reams said the boy’s death was ruled a suicide, and said there were no obvious signs beforehand that the teenager was troubled.
“It was a surprise, I think, to everyone who knew him,” Reams said. “We don’t understand it.”