Finding who can be held to account after a six-year-old shoots a teacher | US gun control
The shooting of a Virginia teacher by her six-year-old student last week left the town of Newport News and the rest of the US shaken and shocked.
Even in a country long used to the sort of school shootings that are rare in much of the rest of the world, the astonishingly young age of the shooter prompted a bout of public agonizing in the US about its gun violence problem.
But the almost unique nature of the Newport News incident meant that the parameters of the subsequent debate were somewhat different than previous shocking school shootings in the US, such as last year’s tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, where a teen gunman killed 19 children and two teachers,
While issues of school security did figure in, there was also an anguished conversation over how to deal with such a young shooter and over who will ultimately face consequences for the shooting in a country that is so awash in guns.
University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie is part of a consortium of mental and public health experts working to establish better policies to curb gun violence. Bonnie said the fault cannot legally lie with the six-year-old, who in the aftermath of the shooting was held in a medical facility, not a jail cell.
“Children at the age of six don’t appreciate the nature and consequences of their behavior. Criminal liability is not permissible in any state under these circumstances. In most, if not all states, the child isn’t subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court’s delinquency jurisdiction either,” Bonnie said.
The boy remains in custody, but six-year-olds cannot be tried as adults under Virginia law. According to Bonnie, fault may be found in the adults in the child’s life. The gun shot by the child belonged to his mother, who legally obtained it. Thus, as has happened previously with other school shootings by young people, the legal – and political – focus has been on the problem of Americans’ widespread and easy access to firearms.
“I think the real repercussions that lie in a situation like this really are for the parents. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the circumstances here – the relationship between the child and the parents, for example. The parents failed to carry out their own responsibilities to prevent access to a weapon by the child. And that certainly would provide potential tort liability”, Bonnie said.
Bonnie added: “We obviously we don’t have any idea what was going through that child’s head, you know, at the time, and I mean, I think that is one thing we shouldn’t be speculating about.”
An aspect of this case unique to shootings committed by children is intent. Authorities called the shooting by the child deliberate, but Joshua Horwitz, the co-director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said: “It’s hard for a six-year-old to form criminal intent.”
“They’re not responsible. They’re not even eligible for juvenile adjudication at that young age. That responsibility has got to reside with the adult.”
The wounded teacher, Abigiail Zwerner, 25, is expected to survive, but exact details surrounding her physical condition are still unknown.
Richneck elementary school – where the incident took place – and its parent school district scrambled for a response to the unexpected episode. Classes were cancelled for two days following the shooting and talks of installing a metal detector in the school are taking place.
Newport News superintendent George Parker told parents at a meeting on Thursday night that a school official was made aware of the 9mm handgun the child brought into his classroom before he fired the weapon. But it was too late.
Horwitz underscored the importance of implementing policy that requires safer storage of firearms in homes where children live.
“Safe storage laws work. Strong safe gun storage laws save lives. This is something that we should all be able to agree on,” he said. “The safest home generally is going to be a home without a firearm. If you have children in the home, you have to be very careful when you bring a gun in and, at a minimum, you have to keep [it] completely locked up.”
The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions says more than half of all US gun owners – including 55% of gun owners with children in the home – do not practice safe firearm storage. The policy, Horwitz said, should not be centered around punishment for children who access firearms, but rather the forces that led to weapon possession in the first place.
“If we’re building policy based on whether a six-year-old can be held accountable, that’s absurd. We’ve completely lost focus. What happens when every child has access to a firearm, they do so because of an adult who has either intentionally, negligently or recklessly providing access to a firearm.”
Horwitz, who lives in Virginia, said this shooting in particular “really hit home”.
“My immediate thought was, ‘I hope everybody’s OK.’ And I didn’t mean that physically, necessarily, but emotionally. That’s a big toll for people to take. How do you deal with community members who will be coming to our colleagues and saying, ‘I’m in pain. I don’t know what to do’?”
The shooting won’t just have a lasting impact on the teacher, but on the child, too, Horowitz said. Child psychologists are now involved and his welfare is under scrutiny.
“I’m not ashamed to admit this, but I’m not a particularly religious person. I literally pray every day not to become desensitized [to shootings], because it’s one of the ways you survive in this field. It’s somewhat unusual for a six-year-old to intentionally shoot a teacher, but it also then opens this floodgate of anger. And I am angry because we live in a country … where we’ve been desensitized to the risks of gun ownership, and people are going out and buying lots of guns. The industry is saying guns keep us safe. Everybody believes that. It’s just not true.
“Guns make your home more dangerous. And this is just the sort of the grossest example of what happens when we live in a society desensitized to the risks of firearms,” Horwitz added.