First school shooting of 2023 raises gun access and liability issues

First school shooting of 2023 raises gun access and liability issues

First school shooting of 2023 raises gun access and liability issues

  • A 6-year-old Virginia child shot a teacher at Richneck Elementary School on Friday, police say.
  • The boy used a legally obtained firearm that belonged to his mother and was kept in the house.
  • The shooting has raised questions about how he gained access to the weapon and who is legally responsible for the incident.

It took the United States six days to record its first school shooting in 2023, prompting the latest round of standard political reactions of sending thoughts and prayers to the victim and the surrounding community. But the incident, committed by a 6-year-old child, also sparked a national conversation about how to tackle gun violence caused by extremely young perpetrators.

On Friday, Jan. 6, the 6-year-old student at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., brought a 9mm Taurus handgun to school in his backpack and, during a lesson, fired and injured his 25-year-old teacher. Abigail Zwerner – said police at a press conference on Monday.

While Zwerner, who was hit in the hand and chest by a single bullet, is in stable condition after sustaining life-threatening injuries, the incident caused a fervor in the community as law enforcement grapples with questions of legal liability and how a child so young could gain access to a gun and know how to use it.

“That’s a great question and I wish we never had to ask: How does a six-year-old know how to use a gun?” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew told reporters about the boy’s knowledge of firearms. “I don’t know if I could give you an adequate answer. I know I’ve seen video games that portray it pretty clearly. Whether it’s something, it could be a toy at some point, I don’t know how to answer that. I–it’s just unprecedented. I don’t know how to answer that question.

“It was intentional.”

The shooting, Drew stressed at the press conference, was “not accidental.”

“It was intentional,” he said.

The boy, who police say used his mother’s gun to carry out the attack, is in custody and receiving unspecified treatment at a hospital. His case will be reviewed by a judge within 96 hours of his detention on Friday to determine how long he will be detained and what rehabilitation treatments will be available to him.

Newport News School District Superintendent Dr. George Parker, III, noted at the news conference that only three shootings in the past 50 years have been initiated by a child six or younger.

With such an unprecedented type of tragedy, the boy’s journey through the criminal justice system remains unclear.

Ed Booth, a Virginia-based attorney, told Insider that while there is no minimum age to prosecute children, it would be incredibly difficult to prosecute such a young child, even for such a serious crime. . A 6-year-old child is unlikely to be deemed competent enough to stand trial, he said, and it would be difficult to claim that he had criminal intent, because such young children do not have “a complete understanding of cause and effect”.

“When you’re talking about a 6-year-old child, obviously understanding what’s going on is going to be quite difficult,” Booth told Insider. “I mean, often six-year-olds aren’t even allowed to testify in cases, let alone be actual defendants in a case.”

Children under 11 cannot be turned over to the Department of Juvenile Justice, Mario Lorello, a former Virginia Beach prosecutor, told local newspaper The Daily Press, even if the state decides to press charges. And a minor must be at least 14 years old to be judged as an adult.

“Another question is, what if you did get a conviction?” Booth told Insider. “I mean, what are you ultimately aiming for in terms of punishment? For that reason, the juvenile justice system is set up with more rehabilitation tools than some of the other courts, and it’s because miners tend to need that kind of thing, and they want to have those resources in place.”

A more likely route to detention, Booth said, is that prosecutors could seek supervision, counseling and participation in community programs for the boy, given the juvenile justice system’s approach to rehabilitation.

“They can monitor the child’s living situation and do a host of things with a more hands-on approach than just a criminal prosecution, because there’s actually no such thing as a simple criminal prosecution against a si little kid,” Booth told Insider.

Potential parental responsibility

Law enforcement acknowledged at Monday’s press conference that the child’s parents could be charged with a crime, if the investigation uncovers evidence of neglect or endangerment. children, but would not say if such evidence exists at this point.

“It comes down to making sure there is meaningful accountability for the person who gave them access or allowed them to have access and have a firearm – whether through negligence or through, that would be horrible, but deliberately giving a gun to a child – but I’m guessing it was through some kind of negligence,” Virginia human rights attorney Qasim Rashid told Insider. “This accountability should absolutely exist because it is not a sustainable way to keep our community and our children safe, by allowing the free flow of firearms without any kind of regulation or accountability.”

Currently, Drew noted at the press conference, investigators are examining how the gun was stored in the home to determine if any security measures were in place. Virginia has a limited secure storage law in place that makes it a crime to “recklessly leave a firearm loaded and unsecured in such a way as to endanger the life or limb of a child under fourteen years old”.

On Saturday, Youngkin said his state had “some of the strictest gun laws in the country” and, in a statement posted on Twitter, said: “My administration has offered its assistance in response to the shooting at Richneck Elementary School to Newport News and stands ready to assist in any way possible. I continue to monitor the situation and pray for continued safety of all students and the community.”

According to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, no state permit, license, or registration is required to buy or own a rifle, shotgun, or handgun in the state of Virginia. Open carry laws allow those who legally own a firearm to carry it with them, although firearms cannot be concealed.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit gun safety organization, ranks Virginia 14th in the nation based on the strength of its gun laws, rating it as “in progress” since the state, in 2020, passed a law requiring point-of-sale background checks.

Youngkin’s office did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Prepare for the unimaginable

According to statistics tracked by Education Week, across the country there were 51 school shootings with injuries or fatalities last year, the most in a single year since the organization began tracking. such incidents in 2018. In 2021 there were 35, 10 in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

There have been 100 people killed and 279 injured in school shootings since EdWeek began tracking data, including in incidents like the Robb Elementary School attack in Uvalde, Texas in May. last and the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The Richneck Elementary School shooting comes just over a year after the last shooting in the school district. On September 20, 2021, a 15-year-old gunman shot and injured two students at Heritage High School, according to The Daily Press.

Superintendent Parker noted at the press conference that the school district reassessed its security measures after the 2021 shooting, but primarily focused on scenarios involving older students or adults bringing weapons onto campus. . He said he didn’t know how the district could have better prepared for such an unprecedented act of violence.

“I’ll be honest,” Parker said. “Who would be prepared for a six-year-old child to bring a loaded gun to school and shoot his teacher?

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