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

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CNN

A week after a six-year-old boy told Newport News he took a gun from his Virginia home, brought it to school and shot his teacher, community members and officials are grappling with a troubling question: How did the boy get his hands on it? a loaded gun?

“There are a lot of questions that we need to answer as a community,” Newport News Mayor Phillip Jones told CNN, including “how did a 6-year-old have a gun (and) know how to use it in that situation. Intentional… Those responsible will be brought to justice, I can promise.

A 25-year-old teacher, identified by authorities as Abigail Zwerner, was injured as police investigated the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School. City Police Chief Steve Drew said Zwerner was in stable condition as of Saturday, though his injuries were initially described as life-threatening.

The boy, who was arrested immediately after the shooting, has been released from custody and is being treated at a hospital, police said Monday. The gun believed to have been used in the shooting was legally purchased by the boy’s mother, who may face charges later in the investigation, Drew said.

According to a CNN analysis, it was the first US school shooting in 2023, prompting some gun experts to say there is an urgent need for stricter and more consistent laws across the country. requires adults to secure their guns safely out of reach of children. and other persons who do not have the right to use them. It also reflects a lack of public knowledge about the responsibility of gun owners to keep guns unloaded, locked and away from ammunition, experts say.

According to a report released Tuesday by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization, research shows that child access prevention and safekeeping laws are effective in reducing youth shootings. The report recommends that states that do not have such laws consider adopting them to reduce gun-related suicides, homicides, injuries and deaths among youth.

“Unsecured guns in homes and vehicles exacerbate the problem of gun violence in the United States,” said Cassandra Krifasi, a professor of gun violence research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. firearms policy implications.

“Identifying the issue is important not only to keep you and your family members safe in your home, but also to ensure that the guns you own don’t end up in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.” and who can use them to cause harm. other people,” he said.

Many communities across the country are suffering the effects of school shootings, which are far more common in the United States than in any other country. According to a CNN analysis, there will be 60 K-12 school shootings in 2022.

But school shootings involving such a young suspect are relatively rare. According to the K-12 School Shootings Database, which tracks U.S. school shootings since 1970, three other cases in which the suspect was six years old occurred in 2000, 2011 and 2021.

Every year in the United States, hundreds of children gain access to guns and inadvertently shoot themselves or someone else, according to a study by Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading nonprofit organization focused on gun violence prevention. According to Everytown, there were 301 accidental shootings of children in 2022, killing 133 people and injuring 180 people.

Last June, an eight-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed a one-year-old girl and wounded another in Florida while playing with his father’s gun. Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons said the father left the gun in a secure holster in the bedroom closet. Then in July, an eight-year-old boy in Arkansas was shot and killed by his five-year-old brother in what authorities said was an accidental shooting.

There are key differences between child access prevention laws and safekeeping laws, and the rules for each vary from state to state.

Safe storage laws usually have criteria that dictate how a gun should be stored – apart from loading, unloading or ammunition. According to Krifasi, child-proofing laws are flexible, generally stating that gun owners must not intentionally store their guns within a child’s reach.

“It’s a somewhat flexible policy because it allows the gun owner to store the gun in any way that suits their needs,” Krifasi said. “You’re not necessarily breaking the law if you don’t consciously believe that a child has access to that weapon.”

“The problem with most child-proofing laws is the lack of clear guidance on how to safely and securely store firearms,” ​​he said. – he adds.

According to the Everytown study, twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. have gun laws, and eight states have laws requiring owners to secure their firearms. Fifteen states and Washington have no-access-to-children laws that generally hold an individual liable for failing to safely store firearms accessible to minors, Everytown reports.

Many states are considering some form of safe storage legislation, and Illinois recently passed a law requiring the Department of Public Health to develop and implement public information on safe storage of firearms.

Under Virginia law, it is a misdemeanor for an adult to leave a firearm loaded and unprotected in a manner that endangers a child under the age of 14. The law also states that it is illegal for a person to unknowingly give permission to a child under the age of 12. firearm.

In rare cases, parents of children with firearms in the family home face criminal charges. Last June, for example, a Florida mother of three was charged with manslaughter after her two-year-old son grabbed an unlocked handgun and shot his father in their home. This was previously reported by CNN.

“It’s very rare for people to be held accountable when an unauthorized person, such as a child, gets access to their firearm and uses it to harm themselves or someone else,” Krifasi explained. “It’s very rare to see people charged and punished in any way with fines or even jail time.”

Research shows that the most restrictive laws about safe storage or keeping children out of reach are also the most effective, said Lois Kay Lee, MD, a pediatrician and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Abuse, and Poison Prevention.

States that criminalize gun owners for offenses are associated with lower gun deaths among children under 14, said Lee, one of the report’s authors. Study 2019.

“Some states are misdemeanors, like Virginia, and some states are felonies. “The sentences are different, the level of restriction is different, and that, at least in our study, seems to be changing when it comes to firearm deaths among children,” Lee said.

An important factor in all gun safety laws, including safe storage and child protection, is public awareness and education about how to store guns safely. security, experts say.

“We don’t have well-funded public education campaigns for the general public to understand the dangers of children being around dangerous weapons, because of the politics around guns. “, said Annie Andrews, professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine. State of South Carolina and expert on gun violence prevention.

As a pediatrician, Andrews said she has worked in recent years to make it more acceptable for children to ask their parents during workplace exams if they have guns at home and if they are safely stored.

Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot and killed by a 6-year-old student, decorate the door of Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Washington, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

“We provide free gun locks to parents who say they have guns that are not safely stored at home,” Andrews said. “So it’s a team effort: pediatricians, school districts, health departments and our legislators must all work together to reduce the number of these tragic cases.”

Dr. Kelsey Gastineau, MD, a pediatrician and public health physician in Nashville, tells parents or caregivers that their desire to learn and explore their environment is a natural part of a child’s development. . seeker.

Gastineau is also an activist for Be SMART, a program that helps moderate the conversation and educate adults about gun safety. 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.

BE Smart volunteers have encouraged school boards in states like Texas, California, and Arkansas to adopt safe-keeping notification policies. As of December, more than 8.5 million students in the 2023-2024 school year “will live in a school district that requires schools to educate parents about the importance of safe gun storage,” the campaign said in a statement.

“When these shootings happen, there’s desperation, grief and fear that can overwhelm communities,” Gastineau said, “It’s so important to give people a place to go and find something they can do.”

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