How and why did a 6 year old shoot a teacher?

This is a shocking story that took place on Friday in Newport News, Virginia, but I held off on addressing it in the hope that more details would be forthcoming. (That didn’t happen.)

A six-year-old boy entered his first-grade classroom, produced a loaded handgun, and shot his elementary school teacher. The shooting was described by authorities as “not accidental” and it followed an “altercation” between the teacher and the student. 

The female teacher survived the serious wound and she is currently listed in stable condition at a local hospital. The boy, whose name is being withheld for obvious reasons, is currently “in custody,” but not technically under arrest. 

As alarming as this story may be, the path forward from here is murky. Nobody is quite sure what to do about the boy and the applicable laws don’t provide much guidance.

Virginia law does not allow 6-year-olds to be tried as adults.

In addition, a 6-year-old is too young to be committed to the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice if found guilty.

A juvenile judge would have authority, though, to revoke a parent’s custody and place a child under the purview of the Department of Social Services.

CNN identified the teacher as Abby Zwerner, who is listed as a 1st-grade teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia.

The first and most obvious question is how a child of that age came into possession of a loaded handgun and knew enough about its operation to sneak it into school and fire it at the teacher. The probable answer is that he found it unsecured in his home and took it. If that’s the case, the parents or guardians may be found liable for failing to properly secure a firearm. The more alarming possibility is that the handgun was a black market weapon and the child obtained it from an older student. But he’s six years old. Could that even happen?

All of the officials commenting on this event for local news outlets are being very careful not to assign any “blame” to the boy. The local police chief told reporters that they were working with appropriate state and local entities to “help us best get services to this young man.”

From all of the initial descriptions being offered, this sounds as if it was a very deliberate act by the student. He didn’t attempt to shoot anyone else and cooperated with authorities after the event. It would appear that he brought the gun to school with the intent of shooting that specific teacher and he carried out his plan.

Whenever there is a shooting at a school, we immediately look to assign blame for how it happened. But if that handgun belonged to the parents and the child took it without their knowledge, how are the authorities supposed to proceed? A judge could revoke their custody and make the child a ward of the state, but would he really be any better off? The parents or guardians can be charged with failing to secure a firearm, but under the applicable Virginia law, that’s only a Class 1 misdemeanor, so they wouldn’t wind up doing much time for it, particularly if they don’t have any priors. (We have no idea about that yet.)

It’s possible that the end of this road will not involve much in the way of prosecution or the assignment of blame. Despite being an intentional act, the incident may wind up being viewed as more of a tragic accident than anything else. But the boy is probably going to be in for years of help with emotional distress and the teacher will no doubt bear lasting scars (both physical and mental) as well.

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