Abby Zwerner was shot after an “altercation” with a 6-year-old in Virginia. PHOTO: Abby Zwerner/Facebook US law establishes that the minimum age for juvenile detention is 11 years.
This time, a 6-year-old student allegedly shot his teacher with a pistol at a Virginia elementary school, in what police described as an “intentional” shooting.
The suspect’s young age has added an unexpected twist to an already tragic scenario. The case has forced local leaders, police and gun violence experts to grapple with a terrifying question: What happens when a first grader shoots someone?
Four days later, the Newport News community is still searching for the answer.
Legally, the authorities are in uncharted territory. Virginia law prohibits charging a 6-year-old as an adult. The student could be charged in juvenile court, but the minimum age for a juvenile prison sentence is 11.
The boy is in a medical facility, and Police Chief Steve Drew said authorities had consulted state children’s service and law enforcement agencies for guidance on the case.
Parents could be responsible, and they may face consequences.
At a press conference on Monday, authorities confirmed that the gun was legally purchased by her mother and that the boy took it from the family home. His mother took him to Richneck Elementary School Friday while the gun was hidden in his backpack.
Authorities did not say Monday whether the boy’s parents would face charges or clarify how they stored the gun. Drew called the device’s safety a “key element” of his investigation.
Virginia law makes it a misdemeanor to “recklessly leave a loaded and unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen.”
While the statute is intended to protect a child from harm and not prevent minors from using firearms for violence, authorities may try to apply it in this case, explained Robert Leider, a George Mason University law professor.
In another scenario, the state of Virginia “could argue that it was the actions of the parents that led directly to the shooting, and that the child was too young to attribute any independent wrongdoing,” Leider said.
While gun violence in American schools occurs several times a year, the attackers are rarely that young.
Since 1970, 18 school shootings have been carried out by children under the age of 9, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. Those cases represent a small percentage of the more than 2,200 school shootings in the database.
David Riedman, the researcher behind the project, said that in the case of “a 6-year-old, the only way they get a gun is if they take it from a house.”
One of the few historical precedents for the Newport News shooting also shook the country.
In February 2000, a 6-year-old boy shot and killed his classmate at a Michigan elementary school. Before shooting 6-year-old Kayla Rolland, the boy told her: “I don’t like you,” said another boy who witnessed the crime.
Prosecutors concluded that they could not charge him because she was too young to have intent to kill. Instead, they charged the adults in the family who lived with him, after concluding that the boy had taken the gun from her family’s residence after it had been stolen.
The boy was placed in the care of juvenile services. One of the family members eventually accepted the sentence, although he pleaded not guilty to manslaughter.
The case made national headlines and inspired former President Bill Clinton to push through a package of gun reforms known as “Kayla’s Law.”
“How many people have to die before we do something?” Clinton asked members of Congress.
More than two decades later, the United States is struggling to pass national gun safety legislation, following hundreds of school shootings.
Sean Holihan, state legislative director for gun violence prevention group Giffords, said Virginia already had gun laws to prevent parents from leaving guns within the reach of children.
In the absence of new legislation or gun restrictions at the national level, “a lot of this is about educating people and trying to get them to be more responsible gun owners,” Holihan said.
“If you live in a house with a child, for God’s sake, put your gun away.”
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