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Lock up guns, says mom of 4-year-old killed in 2017

Reports from Newport News last week about a child shooting a teacher have rocked Kyrin Falcetti. After all, Falcetti is an Orange County mother of three, but she should be a mother of four.

Authorities say that a first-grader at Richneck Elementary School pointed a gun and injured Ruckersville native Abby Zwerner with a single shot to the hand and chest on Jan. 6.

“If that gun had been locked away properly, that 6-year-old could not have gotten to it, and that teacher would not have been shot,” said Falcetti.

Falcetti and her husband Josh have tragic knowledge about what can happen when a child gets a hold of a loaded weapon.

As a veteran of the Army National Guard, the daughter of a police officer, the daughter-in-law of a police officer and the wife of a serviceman, Falcetti, 30, said she knows plenty about guns. But nothing in her family life or military training could have prepared her for that spring day in 2017 when her own son, a preschooler at day care, got his hands on a loaded pistol.

According to accounts of the proceedings in the criminal cases that followed his death, 4-year-old Cole James Clark found the weapon in a bedside table and then shot himself after he was placed for a nap in the primary bedroom at a home-based day care in the Orange County community of Mine Run.

“I said goodbye, and then an hour later he was gone,” said Falcetti.

The May 15, 2017, incident resulted in criminal charges for the operator of the day care facility, Heather Christine Massey, and her fiancé, who was then a deputy recruit of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office.

Massey was charged with five felony counts and four misdemeanors, while the fiancé was charged with one felony and four misdemeanors. Shortly in advance of trial, she pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of child abuse and neglect, while he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of leaving a weapon unattended. Neither plea included an active prison sentence.

Today, the prosecutor in that case, Commonwealth’s Attorney Diana O’Connell calls the incident “haunting and heartbreaking.”

For at least a generation, it has been a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia to leave a loaded, unsecured weapon around children. But Falcetti decided to channel some of her grief into additional legislation.

With the help of Democratic Del. Patrick Hope, Falcetti testified on behalf of a measure that became part of Virginia code. “Cole’s Law,” as it’s been called, tightens the state’s social services code with a ban on unlocked weaponry in home day cares.

“Cole’s example was so tragic and so avoidable,” said Hope, who represents the 47th House District near Washington, D.C. “It’s just common sense to lock up your guns.”

Not everyone agreed. The measure was rejected on largely party-line votes for two years. It passed, said Hope, only when the Democratic Party achieved a majority in the House of Delegates in 2020.

That was the same year that firearms became the leading cause of death for children ages 1-19 in the United States, according to San Francisco-based nonprofit group KFF, formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF asserts that data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the U.S. is unique among industrialized nations with such a damning superlative. The gunfire comes in the form of homicides, suicides and — in the case of Cole — accidents.

“These things are happening every single day,” said Hope. “We can’t stop them with thoughts and prayers.”

Hope lauds the work that Falcetti did to get Cole’s Law passed.

“Bless her,” said Hope. “She’s been really brave to put herself through those hearings.”

Falcetti said that the boy behind the bill was constantly pleasing his parents and siblings with a warm and loving attitude.

“Cole was very different from any young child that I’ve come across,” said Falcetti. “He rarely had a tantrum. He was always smiling.”

She said that Cole also had an unusual sense of personal integrity.

“If he did something wrong when we weren’t around, he would tell on himself,” she said. “I don’t know many children who would tell on themself.”

At the time of Cole’s death, Falcetti was pregnant with her fourth child. Now, although busy with the three who remain, she said that not a day passes without the family sharing memories about the little boy whose favorite toy was a purple monkey. He’s her “guardian angel,” as the tattoo on her left arm attests.

“Talking about him helps me,” said Falcetti. “He was real; he is real; I gave birth to him.”

Falcetti wants to make clear that her fight isn’t about guns themselves.

“I have a gun, and you have every right to own a gun,” she said. “I have nothing against guns; it’s about locking them properly.”

In Newport News, the mayor has vowed to figure out who failed to keep the gun out of the hands of a 6-year-old.

“The individuals responsible will be held accountable,” Mayor Phillip Jones recently told CNN. “I can promise that.”

Like the mayor, Falcetti contended that adults may need a lesson in accountability.

“Kids are innocent,” she said. “They do not have the mental capacity to truly understand the dangers of a gun.”


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