The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We all have failed the 6-year-old who shot his teacher

We don’t need to know anything about the Virginia first-grader to know this: He should have never been able to get his hands on a gun.

Residents of Newport News hold a candlelight vigil in honor of first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner. (John C. Clark/AP)

If you look up developmental milestones for 6-year-olds, you will see that most children at that age can write their names.

They can pick out their clothes and dress themselves.

They can describe their favorite shows and distinguish fiction from reality.

They also may need help holding a pencil properly and reminders about the sounds letters make. They may need help tying their shoelaces and buttoning their coats. They may need to be reassured again and again: “No, a monster is not hiding in your room because those types of monsters aren’t real.”

At 6, children still have mouths filled with baby teeth and believe that fairies leave money for the ones that fall out. At 6, children still use safety seats in cars and cry if the macaroni and cheese touches the broccoli on their plates.

A boy, a bug and a different kind of love story

Those details matter. Those details matter because they remind us of what it means to be 6 years old and show why people have been asking the wrong question about the first-grader who shot his teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va.

The question that has been raised repeatedly since the shooting: What punishment can he face under our criminal justice system?

The question we should be asking: How did we fail that child and his teacher so horribly?

“I think what’s really important to remember in this situation is this child is a victim as much as the person he shot,” Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence told me on a recent afternoon. “He is a victim of America’s obsession with guns and the pervasiveness of guns and gun culture in this country.”

Anderman is a mother of two children, and she knows well what 6 looks like.

“I think anyone who has children knows 6-year-olds don’t effectively know how to manage their emotions,” she said. That a first-grader who got access to a gun would purposely fire it, she said, “is not an unforeseeable outcome.”

I was a kid when a classmate was shot and killed. That trauma lasts.

She’s right. What happened in Newport News was horrifying and alarming, but it was not “unforeseeable.” I have two children who attend elementary school in Virginia, and I felt many things when I heard about the shooting, but shock was not one of them. Six-year-olds are impulsive. They will toss a favorite toy in anger and then wail when it is destroyed. They will shove a friend to the ground and then offer them their last cookie.

When details eventually emerge about that 6-year-old, we will learn the specifics of that child’s circumstances. But we don’t need to know anything about him to know this: He should have never been able to get his hands on a gun.

We also know that he lives in a state with a weak child-access prevention law.

In Virginia, a person can face a misdemeanor for “recklessly leaving a loaded, unsecured gun in a manner that endangers the life or limb of children under 14.” Setting the age at 14 makes Virginia’s law weaker than other states, Anderman said. “The other thing that makes Virginia’s law a little weaker, although this is not unusual, is it only applies to loaded firearms,” she said. “Some states also require unloaded firearms to be kept away from minors.”

The states with the strongest safe storage and child-access prevention laws require anyone who keeps a gun in the home to safely store it and they dictate what it means to safely store a firearm, she said.

“Virginia has no laws that require unattended firearms to be stored in a certain way,” according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s website. “Virginia also does not require a locking device to accompany the sale of a firearm, and no state statutes require firearm owners to affirmatively lock their weapons.”

There is still much publicly unknown about the circumstances of the Newport News shooting. But authorities have said that the student’s mother legally purchased the 9mm Taurus handgun that he brought to school in a backpack and used to shoot his teacher, Abigail Zwerner. The student reportedly pulled out the weapon while Zwerner was giving a lesson, pointed it at her and fired a single shot that hit her in the hand and chest.

6-year-old who allegedly shot Va. teacher used gun legally purchased by mom, police say

Police said the 25-year-old teacher then made sure all the other students got to safety before she walked out of the classroom. She was taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries but in recent days has been declared in stable condition. As for the boy, a school employee reportedly restrained him, and after law enforcement officers arrived, the child was taken to a hospital and put under court-ordered mental health treatment. As of Wednesday, no one had been charged in the case, and in the days that followed the shooting, legal experts explained through different media outlets that it would be difficult to prosecute a child of that age.

Normally, after a shooting, questions about prosecution and punishments make sense. But in this case, we are talking about a 6-year-old child. We are talking about someone who watches cartoons and needs help pouring milk in a bowl of cereal. Instead of focusing on whether he can be held accountable for his actions, we should be focusing on how we can hold ourselves accountable for our actions — the ones we’ve taken and the ones we have failed to take.

A 6-year-old is accused of shooting someone at school. He isn’t the first.

We give 6-year-olds dull, round-tipped scissors to use for a reason — to keep them and those around them safe. We should be doing everything we can to make sure they don’t have access to firearms.

Without knowing more about the circumstances of the shooting, it is impossible to say whether stronger child-access prevention laws would have kept the first-grader from getting his hands on that gun and using it. But strengthening those laws in Virginia and in other states that have put in place nothing or similarly lacking legislation will help keep other children from pulling triggers, either accidentally or intentionally.

Logic tells us that. So do studies. On Tuesday, the RAND Corporation released a new report as part of their Gun Policy in America initiative.

“Available evidence supports the conclusion that child-access prevention laws, or safe storage laws, reduce self-inflicted fatal or nonfatal firearm injuries — including unintentional and intentional self-injuries — among youth,” reads one of the findings. “Evidence also supports the conclusions that such laws reduce firearm homicides among youth.”

We ask 6-year-olds to pick up their toys. Requiring grown-ups to secure their weapons in responsible ways and offering them guidelines on how best to do that is not unreasonable. In every state, it’s the least we should be doing.

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