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 an unsettling question: How did the child get access to a loaded firearm?
“There’s a lot of questions that we have 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 in such a deliberate manner … The individuals responsible will be held accountable. I can promise that.”
Police are seeking answers as they investigate the events leading up to the January 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary school, wounding a 25-year-old elementary school teacher identified by officials as Abigail Zwerner. While her injuries were initially described as life-threatening, Zwerner has been listed in stable condition since Saturday, according to the city’s police chief, Steve Drew.
The boy, who was taken into custody immediately after the shooting, was under a temporary detention order and was being evaluated at a hospital, police said Monday. The gun allegedly 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 a dire need for stronger, more consistent laws nationwide, requiring adults to safely secure their guns out of the reach of children and others unauthorized to use them. It also reveals a lack of public education on the responsibility of gun owners to store their guns unloaded, locked and away from ammunition, the experts said.
Research shows child access prevention and safe storage laws are effective in reducing shootings among youth, according to a report released on Tuesday by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization. The report recommends states without such laws consider adopting them to reduce gun-related suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries and death among youth.
“Unsecured guns in homes and cars are fueling our much broader and much more prevalent gun violence issue in the US,” said Cassandra Crifasi, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the effects of gun policies.
“It’s important to frame the issue as not just keeping yourself and your family member safe in your home, but making sure that the guns you own don’t fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and might use them to harm other people,” she said.
Many communities across the nation are familiar with the traumatic effects of school shootings, which have become exceedingly common in the US compared to any other country. In 2022, there were 60 shootings at K-12 schools, a CNN analysis found.
But school shootings by a suspect so young are relatively rare. According to the K-12 School Shooting Database, which tracks shootings in American schools going back to 1970, there have been three other cases in which the suspect was as young as six: in 2000, 2011 and 2021.
Still, every year, hundreds of children in the US gain access to firearms and unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else, according to research by Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading non-profit organization focusing on gun violence prevention. In 2022, there were 301 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 133 deaths and 180 injuries nationally, Everytown data shows.
Last June, a one-year-old girl was fatally shot 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 was an accidental shooting.
Strongest laws have penalties, experts say
There are key differences between child access prevention laws and safe storage laws, and the provisions of each vary widely from state to state.
Secure storage laws typically have criteria to designate how the gun must be stored – loaded, unloaded, or separated from ammunition. Child access prevention laws are more flexible, generally saying gun owners must not knowingly store their guns in a place where a child could gain access to them, according to Crifasi.
“It’s a little bit more of a flexible policy in that it might allow a gun owner to store a gun in a way that sort of best meets their needs,” said Crifasi. “As long as you don’t knowingly think a child could access that gun, then you’re not necessarily violating the law.”
“The problem with many child access prevention laws is that there isn’t enough clear guidance on how guns should be stored in a way that is safe and secure,” she added.
Twenty-three states and Washington, DC, have laws in place regarding firearm storage, while eight states have laws mandating owners secure their firearms, according to research by Everytown. Fifteen states and Washington, DC have child access prevention laws, which generally stipulate an individual will be held liable if they did not securely store a firearm accessed by a minor, according to Everytown.