The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gun used by 6-year-old to shoot teacher was stored with lock, family attorney says

Police respond to a shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., on Jan. 6. (Billy Schuerman/Virginian-Pilot/AP)
4 min

An attorney for the family of the 6-year-old boy who shot and wounded a teacher earlier this month at a Virginia elementary school claimed Thursday that the gun used in the attack had been stored with a trigger lock, while the family issued a statement expressing sympathy for the educator and saying their son suffers from an “acute disability.”

Offering their first public comments on the shooting that drew national attention, the family issued a statement asserting that the gun police say the boy brought from home and wielded during the shooting “was secured.”

James Ellenson, the family’s attorney, said in a later interview that the gun was kept on a top shelf of the mother’s bedroom closet. Ellenson said the family is unsure how the boy managed to remove the trigger lock that keeps a firearm from firing. He said he was unsure of the precise mechanism of the lock.

Police have said previously that the boy’s mother had legally purchased the gun and that the student brought it to school in a backpack.

Authorities say they are still investigating how the boy got the gun and are exploring whether to charge anyone for failing to secure it. A Newport News police spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday on the family’s characterization of how the gun was stored, citing the investigation.

“Our heart goes out to our son’s teacher and we pray for her healing in the aftermath of such an unimaginable tragedy as she selflessly served our son and the children in the school,” the family’s statement said. “She has worked diligently and compassionately to support our family as we sought the best education and learning environment for our son. We thank her for her courage, grace and sacrifice.”

Skip to end of carousel


End of carousel

The statement said the family is cooperating with local and federal law enforcement “to understand how this could have happened.”

The boy has a disability and was under a care plan at the school that included his mother or father attending with him and accompanying him to class every day until the week of the shooting, the statement said.

“The week of the shooting was the first week when we were not in class with him,” the statement said. “We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives.”

Before shooting, backpack of Va. 6-year-old searched by school staffer

The boy has been under child psychiatric care at a facility since the shooting, Ellenson said. The attorney declined to provide details about what disability the boy suffers from.

Ellenson said the family is “devastated.”

Newport News police said the shooting occurred shortly after 2 p.m. on Jan. 6 at Richneck Elementary School. The boy pulled out a gun and shot first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner as she was teaching a lesson, police said. The bullet tore through Zwerner’s outstretched hand and hit her in the chest.

Authorities have called the shooting intentional but are still investigating the motive. The boy has not been charged with a crime, and legal experts say that is unlikely since Virginia law presumes children younger than 7 can’t form the intent to commit an illegal act.

When asked why the 6-year-old might have shot his teacher, Ellenson questioned whether a child so young could even have a motive.

“Those terms don’t apply to a 6-year-old,” Ellenson said.

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

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said in an online chat Wednesday that the investigation into the shooting is progressing but that authorities still need to conduct interviews with some of the students in the class and obtain school records and other materials.

Zwerner was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, and Drew said she is still recovering.

Earlier this week, hundreds of parents packed a Newport News School Board meeting to complain about security in the district. Three shootings have occurred on school grounds since 2021.

Some parents have also questioned how Richneck handled the events leading up to the shooting. Newport News Schools Superintendent George Parker III said last week that school officials had received a tip that the boy had a gun on the day of the shooting and searched his backpack, but they did not find the weapon. Police have said they were not contacted about the tip, and parents have questioned how a 6-year-old was able to conceal a gun from school officials.

Nick Anderson contributed to this report. This developing story has been updated.