After 3-Year-Old Accidentally Shoots and Kills Mom, Illinois Dad Is Facing Gun Charge

"The fact that this was 100 percent preventable makes it all that much more difficult to deal with," the Dolton, Ill., police chief tells PEOPLE

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A 3-year-old boy playing with a handgun he found in his parents' car accidentally fired and killed his mother, and the boy's father who was licensed to own the weapon is now facing a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully transporting it.

"This is as much as we can do to hold this man responsible," Dolton, Ill., Police Chief Robert M. Collins Jr. tells PEOPLE, when asked why a stronger charge didn't apply. "Yes, he has to deal with that for the rest of his life. But there's still a level of responsibility that you have to take, and that's why we pushed this particular charge."

He says the gun owner, 23-year-old Romell Watson, was "completely devastated" by the death of his girlfriend and the boy's mother, 22-year-old Daejah Bennett.

"Once this child grows up and discovers what this incident was, how it happened, what would that human be like?" Collins says. "Is it better to keep that away from him for his entire life, or is it better to tell him and have him deal with it?"

Collins says police responded about 5:30 p.m. Saturday to a call for ambulance assistance outside a Food 4 Less grocery, where they found the family in the car and Bennett unresponsive.

She had been struck in her back by a bullet and later died at a hospital.

"It was determined that the gun belonged to the dad and the 3-year-old son somehow got ahold of the gun and began playing with it," says Collins.

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Although Watson was legally entitled to own the handgun, he did not have a concealed carry permit that would have allowed him to transport the gun inside the vehicle with him, says Collins. Instead, Watson had only a firearm owner's permit, which required the weapon to be unloaded and placed during transport in a locked container, such as the trunk, outside of the vehicle.

Watson was taken into custody and charged Monday, then released after posting bond, says the police chief. The boy is currently in the custody of other relatives.

An attorney for Watson was not immediately identified, and he has not yet been required to enter a plea in court.

The office of the Cook County State's Attorney reviewed the case for a possible felony charge against the gun owner, but "in this particular case they didn't believe there was enough evidence against Mr. Watson to warrant a more serious charge, such as reckless homicide," says Collins. "So they elected not to charge him at all."

Illinois state law, however, allows local police to charge misdemeanor crimes without involving the state prosecutor, he says.

"The fact that this was 100 percent preventable makes it all that much more difficult to deal with," says Collins. "Gun ownership obviously is a right, but what comes with that is accountability and responsibility.

"Within the last six or seven months, we have had two additional incidents of a child finding a gun, firing the weapon, and somebody getting injured," he says. "This happens much more often than people realize, and we need to bring some type of focus to this particular problem."

"It's enough that people are being shot on the streets, let alone children finding guns and playing with them and firing them," he says.

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