Newport News, Virginia: A 6-year-old shot a teacher with his mother’s gun. The tragedy highlights the lack of strong secure storage laws across the nation

Newport News, Virginia: A 6-year-old shot a teacher with his mother’s gun. The tragedy highlights the lack of strong secure storage laws across the nation


In the week since a six-year-old boy in Newport News, Virginia took a gun from his home, brought it to school and shot his teacher, community members and officials are grappling with a troubling question: How did the child get into a loaded firearm?

“There are a lot of questions we need to answer as a community,” Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones told CNN, including “how a 6-year-old was able to have a gun (and) know how to use it him in a situation like that. Intentionally … The people responsible will be held accountable. I can promise that.”

Police are seeking answers as they investigate the events leading up to the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School, injuring a 25-year-old elementary school teacher identified by officials as Abigail Zwerner. While her injuries were initially described as life-threatening, Zwerner was listed in stable condition as of Saturday, according to city police Chief Steve Drew.

The boy, who was taken into custody shortly after the shooting, was under a temporary restraining order and was being evaluated at a hospital, police said Monday. The gun used in the shooting was legally purchased by the child’s mother, who could face charges at the end of the investigation, Drew said.

It was the first shooting at a US school in 2023, according to a CNN analysis, highlighting what some gun policy experts believe is an urgent need for stronger and more consistent laws across the country, urging adults to secure their weapons out of reach of children. and others unauthorized to use them. It also reveals a lack of public education on the responsibility of gun owners to keep their guns unloaded, locked and away from ammunition, experts said.

According to a report released Tuesday by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization, research shows that child access prevention and safe storage laws are effective in reducing youth shootings. The report recommends that states without such laws consider adopting them to reduce gun suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries and deaths among youth.

“Unsafe guns in homes and cars are fueling our much broader and much more widespread issue of gun violence in the U.S.,” said Cassandra Crifasi, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the effects of gun policy. .

“It’s important to understand the issue as not only keeping yourself and your family member safe in your home, but making sure the guns you own don’t fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and can they use them to harm other people,” she said.

Many communities across the country are familiar with the traumatic effects of school shootings, which have become extremely common in the US compared to any other country. In 2022, there were 60 K-12 school shootings, a CNN analysis found.

But school shootings by such a young suspect are relatively rare. According to the K-12 School Shooting Database, which tracks US school shootings since 1970, there have been three other cases in which the suspect was just six years old: in 2000, 2011 and 2021.

Yet each year, hundreds of children in the U.S. gain access to firearms and accidentally shoot themselves or someone else, according to research from Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading nonprofit focused on preventing gun violence. In 2022, there were 301 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 133 deaths and 180 injuries nationwide, Everytown data shows.

Last June, a one-year-old girl was shot and killed and another child was injured after an eight-year-old boy accidentally shot them while playing with his father’s gun in Florida. Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons said the father left his gun in a closet in the room in what he thought was a safe holster. Then, in July, an eight-year-old boy was shot and killed in Arkansas by his five-year-old brother in what authorities believed to be an accidental shooting.

There are key differences between child access prevention laws and safekeeping laws, and the provisions of each vary widely from state to state.

Safe storage laws usually have criteria to determine how the gun must be stored – loaded, unloaded or separated from the ammunition. Child access prevention laws are more flexible, generally saying that gun owners must not knowingly store their guns in a place where a child could have access to them, according to Crifasi.

“It’s a little bit more of a flexible policy in that it can allow a gun owner to store a gun in a way that best meets their needs,” Crifasi said. “As long as you don’t knowingly think that a child might have access to that weapon, then you’re not necessarily breaking the law.”

“The problem with many child access prevention laws is that there is not enough clear guidance on how guns should be stored in a way that is safe and secure,” she added.

Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have laws in place regarding the storage of firearms, while eight states have laws requiring owners to secure their firearms, according to research by Everytown. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., have child access prevention laws, which generally stipulate that an individual will be held liable if they have not safely stored a firearm accessed by a minor, according to Everytown.

More states are considering some form of safe storage legislation, and most recently, Illinois passed a law last year requiring the Department of Public Health to develop and implement a gun safe storage awareness campaign.

Under Virginia law, it is a misdemeanor for an adult to leave a loaded and unsecured firearm in a manner that could endanger a child under the age of 14. The statute also states that it is illegal for a person to unknowingly permit a child under the age of 12 to use a firearm.

In some rare cases, parents of children who use guns in the family home are prosecuted. Last June, for example, a mother of three in Florida was charged with manslaughter after her two-year-old son pulled out a loaded handgun and fatally shot his father in their home, CNN previously reported.

“Very rarely are people held accountable when someone who is unauthorized, such as a child, gains access to their firearms and uses them to harm themselves or someone else,” Crifasi explained. “It’s extremely rare to see people charged and punished in some way with fines or even jail time.”

Research shows that the most restrictive laws about safekeeping or preventing children’s access are also the most effective, said Lois Kaye Lee, a pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.

States that hold gun owners criminally liable for every offense are associated with lower rates of firearm deaths among children under the age of 14, said Lee, who is one of the authors of the 2019 study.

“Some states are misdemeanors, like in Virginia, and in other states they are felonies. The penalties are different, the level of restriction is different, and that, at least in our study, seems to make a difference when we look at firearm deaths in children,” Lee said.

An essential factor in all gun safety laws, including safe storage and child access prevention, is public awareness and education about how guns should be stored safely, experts said.

“We don’t have any heavily funded public education campaigns so that the general public understands the dangers of children being around unsafe firearms, and that’s because of gun policy,” said Annie Andrews, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical University. from South Carolina and an expert on gun violence prevention.

As a pediatrician, Andrews said in recent years she has focused on making it more acceptable in her workplace to ask parents of children during screenings if they have firearms at home and if they are safely stored.

“We provide gun locks, free of charge, to parents who say they have firearms at home that are not properly stored,” Andrews said. “So it’s a team effort: pediatricians, school districts, public health departments and our legislators all need to work together to reduce the incidence of these tragedies.”

It’s a natural part of a child’s development to want to learn and explore their environment, which is why their parents or guardians are responsible for making sure their spaces are safe, said Dr. Kelsey Gastineau, a Nashville-based pediatrician and public health. researcher.

Gastineau is also an activist for the Be SMART program, a framework to help normalize conversations and educate adults about safe firearm storage. The campaign was launched in 2015 by Moms Demand Action, which has been fighting for gun safety measures since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Volunteers for BE Smart have asked school boards in states such as Texas, California and Arkansas to adopt safekeeping notification policies. As of December, more than 8.5 million students “will live in a school district that requires schools to educate parents about the importance of safe firearm storage” in the 2023-2024 school year, according to a statement from the campaign .

“When these shootings happen, there’s so much despair, there’s so much tragedy and fear that can ripple through communities,” Gastineau said, “Giving people a place to go and look for something they can do is so important.”

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