- A Virginia 6-year-old shot a teacher at Richneck Elementary School on Friday, according to police.
- The boy used a legally obtained firearm that was owned by his mother and kept in the house.
- The shooting raised questions about how he accessed the gun and who is legally liable for the incident.
It took six days for the United States to log its first school shooting in 2023, prompting the latest round of standard political reactions of sending thoughts and prayers to the victim and surrounding community. But the incident, committed by a 6-year-old, has also spurred a national conversation about how to address gun violence caused by extremely young perpetrators.
On Friday, January 6, the 6-year-old student at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, brought a 9mm Taurus handgun to school in his backpack and, during a lesson, shot and wounded his teacher — 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner — police said during a Monday press conference.
While Zwerner, who was struck through the hand and into her chest by a single round, is in stable condition after sustaining life-threatening injuries, the incident has caused a fervor in the community as law enforcement tries to address questions of legal liability and how a child so young could have access to a gun and know how to use it.
“That is a great question and I wish that we never had to have asked: how does a six-year-old know how to use a firearm?” Newport News Chief of Police Steve Drew said when asked by reporters about the boy’s knowledge of firearms. “I don’t know that I could give you an adequate answer. I know that I have seen some video games out there that depict it pretty clearly. Whether it’s something, it might be a toy at one point, I don’t know how to answer that. I — it’s just unprecedented. I don’t know how to answer that question.”
“It was intentional.”
The shooting, Drew emphasized in the press conference, was “not accidental.”
“It was intentional,” he said.
The boy, who police say used his mother’s legally-owned firearm to carry out the attack, is in custody receiving unspecified treatment at a hospital. His case will be reviewed by a judge within 96 hours from his detainment on Friday to determine how long he will be detained and what rehabilitation treatments will be made available to him.
Dr. George Parker, III, the superintendent of the Newport News School District, noted in the press conference that only three shootings in the last 50 years have been initiated by a child six years of age or younger.
With such an unprecedented type of tragedy, the boy’s path through the criminal legal system remains unclear.
Ed Booth, a Virginia-based attorney, told Insider that, while there is no minimum age limit for prosecuting children, it would be incredibly difficult to prosecute such a young child, even for such a serious crime. A 6-year-old would be unlikely to be deemed competent enough to stand trial, he said, and it would be difficult to argue he had criminal intent because such young children do not have “full cause and effect understanding.”
“When you’re talking about a 6-year-old, understanding what’s going on is obviously going to be sort of difficult,” Booth told Insider. “I mean, frequently six-year-olds are not even permitted to testify in cases, let alone be actual party defendants in a case.”
Children under age 11 can’t be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice, Mario Lorello, a former Virginia Beach prosecutor told local news outlet The Daily Press, even if the state decides to pursue charges. And a minor must be at least 14 years old to be tried as an adult.
“Another question is, what happens if you actually secured a conviction?” Booth told Insider. “I mean, what are you ultimately aiming to do in terms of punishment? For that reason, the juvenile justice system is set up with more rehabilitative tools than some of the other courts, and that’s because minors tend to need that sort of thing, and they want to have those resources in place.”
A more likely route than detention, Booth said, is that prosecutors could seek supervision, counseling, and participation in community-based programs for the boy, given the juvenile legal system’s rehabilitative approach.
“They can monitor the child’s living situation and do a whole host of things with a more hands-on approach than a straightforward criminal prosecution because there’s effectively no such thing as a straightforward criminal prosecution on such a small child,” Booth told Insider.
Potential parental liability
Law enforcement acknowledged during the Monday press conference there is potential for the parents of the child to be charged with a crime, should the investigation reveal evidence of negligence or child endangerment, but would not say whether such evidence exists at this point.
“It goes back to ensuring there’s meaningful accountability for the person who got him access or allowed him to have access and firearm — either through negligence or through, it would be horrifying, but, deliberately giving a gun to a child — but I’m guessing it was through some sort of negligence,” Virginia human rights lawyer, Qasim Rashid told Insider. “That accountability absolutely should be there because this is not a sustainable way to keep our community safe and keep our children safe, by allowing the free flow of firearms without any kind of regulation or accountability.”
Currently, Drew noted in the press conference, investigators are looking into how the gun was stored in the home to determine if any safety precautions were in place. Virginia has a limited secure storage law in place that makes it a misdemeanor to “recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen.”
On Saturday, Youngkin said his state had “some of the toughest gun laws in the nation” and, in a statement posted to Twitter, said: “My administration has offered assistance in response to the shooting at Richneck elementary school in Newport News and stand at the ready to help in any way we can. I am continuing to monitor the situation and am praying for the continued safety of all students and the community.”
No state permit, license, or registration is required to purchase or possess a rifle, shotgun, or handgun in the state of Virginia, according to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. Open carry laws allow those who legally own a firearm to carry it with them, though guns may not be concealed.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit gun safety organization, ranks Virginia as 14th in the nation based on the strength of its gun laws, classifying it as “making progress” since the state, in 2020, passed a law requiring background checks at the point of sale.
Youngkin’s office did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Preparing for the unimaginable
According to statistics tracked by Education Week, across the country there were 51 shootings with injuries or deaths that occurred in schools last year, the most in a single year since the organization began tracking such incidents in 2018. In 2021 there were 35, 10 in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.
There have been 100 people killed and 279 injured in school shootings since EdWeek began tracking the data, including in incidents like the Robb Elementary School attack in Uvalde, Texas last May and the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The Richneck Elementary School shooting comes a little over a year since the school district last experienced a shooting. On September 20, 2021, a 15-year-old gunman shot and wounded two students at Heritage High School, according to The Daily Press.
Superintendent Parker noted in the press conference that the school district reassessed its security measures following the 2021 shooting, but focused primarily on scenarios involving older students or adults bringing guns to campus. He said he was unsure how the district could have better prepared for such an unprecedented act of violence.
“I’ll be honest,” Parker said. “Who would be prepared for a six-year-old to bring a loaded weapon to school and shoot their teacher?”