Someone should put up huge billboards across the state with the image of doe-eyed little Katterine Palma. The signs should serve as in-your-face reminders of what can be lost when adults are careless with firearms. Sweet-faced, 4-year-old Katterine is dead, killed by another child who found a loaded gun an adult left unlocked in a bedroom.
That adult, Erin Melendez, 37, was charged Saturday with storing a gun in a manner accessible to a minor. Katterine was reportedly the 4-year-old niece of Mirna Palma. Melendez lived with Mirna Palma at the apartment where the shooting took place.
Palma's 3-year-old son and 11-year-old nephew - Katterine's brother - were in the bedroom at the time of the shooting. Police said the shooting was accidental. They haven't said who pulled the trigger.
Neither child should have to bear the weight of the responsibility for such an incident. To kids that young, guns are curiosities and often viewed as playthings. To a three-year-old especially, it would be hard to fathom that it could end a life.
But adults do understand. That's why they have enormous responsibility to keep lethal weapons out of the reach of children. When adults fail, tragic things can and do happen. Katterine, lying in a pool of blood, is the sad proof.
Here are some facts you should know about firearms in this state and nation:
One third of U.S. children live in homes with firearms. Nearly half those homes with children keep a gun unlocked. A University of North Carolina study found that 43 percent of N.C. gun owners with children leave their weapon unlocked.
Many young children, including children as young as three years old, are strong enough to fire a handgun.
Twenty-five percent of U.S. children report having easy access to guns at home.
About 75 percent of kids in homes with guns say they know where the gun is kept.
Homes in which children were only visitors were more likely to store firearms unlocked (56 percent) than homes in which children resided (33 percent).
At least four children in the Carolinas have been killed or seriously injured in accidental shootings this past year. At least 37 have been killed nationwide.
One death or injury in these highly preventable accidents is one too many. Thirty-seven is a travesty.
N.C. law requires anyone who owns a gun to store it in a way that cannot be accessed by a child living in the home. The gun owner can be found guilty of a misdemeanor if a child gets access to the gun and causes injury or death.
A misdemeanor seems too light a punishment for actions that play a part in a child's death or injury. So far, state law hasn't been able to prevent these tragedies. Neither have the offers of free gun locks from police departments like ours.
Increasing the penalty for such negligence could help. Using gun locks definitely would. And having Katterine's sweet face looking out from billboards along every highway could poignantly highlight why those locks are vital.
Success would not only save children's lives but it would spare other adults the agony that Melendez and Katterine's family are now enduring. "I know it was an accident," Melendez said. "but it's very tough. Very, very tough."