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A 6-year-old shot a teacher with his mother’s gun. The tragedy highlights the lack of strong secure storage laws across the country.

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CNN

In the week since a six-year-old boy told Newport News, Virginia picked up a gun from his home, brought it to school and shot his teacher, community members and officials grapple with a troubling question: how did the child gain access to 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 a 6-year-old could have had a gun (and) know how to use it in such a deliberate way… The people responsible will be held accountable I can promise that.

Police are searching for answers as they investigate the events leading to the January 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School, injuring a 25-year-old teacher identified by authorities as Abigail Zwerner. While her injuries were initially described as life-threatening, Zwerner has been listed in stable condition since Saturday, according to city police chief Steve Drew.

The boy, who was taken into custody immediately after the shooting, was the subject of a remand order and was being evaluated at a hospital, police said on Monday. The weapon believed to have been 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, underscoring what some gun policy experts see as an urgent need for tougher and more consistent laws nationwide. requiring adults to secure their guns safely out of the reach of children. and other persons not authorized to use them. It also reveals a lack of public education about gun owners’ responsibility to store their guns unloaded, locked and away from ammunition, experts said.

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

“Unsecured guns in homes and cars fuel our much larger and much more prevalent gun violence problem in the United States,” said Cassandra Crifasi, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies gun violence. effects of firearms policies.

“Defining the problem is important not only to keep you and your family members safe in your home, but also to make sure the guns you have don’t get into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. and who could use them to do harm. other people,” she said.

Many communities across the country are experiencing the traumatic effects of school shootings, which have become extremely common in the United States compared to any other country. In 2022, there were 60 K-12 school shootings, according to a CNN analysis.

But school shootings by such a young suspect are relatively rare. According to the K-12 School Shooting Database, which has tracked US school shootings since 1970, there have been three other cases in which the suspect was as young as six: in 2000, 2011 and 2021.

Yet each year, hundreds of children in the United States have access to guns and unwittingly shoot themselves or someone else, according to a study conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization in leading nonprofit focused on gun violence prevention. In 2022, there were 301 unintentional shootings of children, resulting in 133 deaths and 180 injuries nationwide, according to data from Everytown.

Last June, a one-year-old girl was shot and killed 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 fatally shot in Arkansas by his five-year-old brother in what authorities believed was an accidental shooting.

There are key differences between child access prevention laws and secure storage laws, and the provisions of each vary widely from state to state.

Safe storage laws usually have criteria for designating how the weapon should be stored – loaded, unloaded, or separated from ammunition. Child access prevention laws are more flexible, generally saying that gun owners must not knowingly store their guns where a child could gain access to them, according to Crifasi.

“This is a bit more flexible policy in that it can allow a gun owner to store a gun in whatever way best suits their needs,” Crifasi said. “As long as you don’t knowingly believe that a child could access this weapon, you are not necessarily breaking the law.”

“The problem with many child access prevention laws is that there aren’t enough clear guidelines on how firearms should be stored safely and securely,” he said. -she adds.

Twenty-three states and Washington, DC, have laws in place regarding gun storage, while eight states have laws requiring owners to secure their firearms, according to research by Everytown. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. have child access prevention laws, which generally state that an individual will be held liable if they failed to safely store a firearm accessible to a minor, according to Everytown.

Students and police gather outside Richneck Elementary School after a shooting, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Newport News, Va.

More states are considering some form of secure storage legislation, and most recently, Illinois passed legislation last year requiring the Department of Public Health to develop and implement a public awareness of safe storage of firearms.

Under Virginia law, it is a misdemeanor if an adult leaves a firearm loaded and unsecured in such a way that it could endanger a child under 14. The law also states that it is illegal for a person to unknowingly allow a child under 12 to use a firearm.

In rare cases, parents of children who have access to firearms in the family home are prosecuted. Last June, for example, a mother of three in Florida was charged with manslaughter after her two-year-old son got hold of an unlocked handgun and fatally shot his father in their home. , CNN previously reported.

“It is very rare that people are actually held accountable when an unauthorized person, such as a child, gains access to their firearms and uses them to harm themselves or someone else,” explained Crifasi. “It is extremely rare to see people charged and punished in one way or another with fines or even jail time.”

Research shows that the most restrictive laws around safe storage or preventing child access are also the most effective, said Lois Kaye Lee, pediatrician and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison prevention.

States holding gun owners criminally responsible for violations are associated with lower rates of gun death among children under 14, said Lee, who is one of the authors of the report. 2019 study.

“Some states are misdemeanors, like in 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 make a difference when it comes to firearm deaths among children,” Lee said.

A critical factor in all gun safety laws, including safe storage and prevention of child access, is public awareness and education about how guns should be stored safely. safety, experts said.

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

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

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

“We provide free gun locks to parents who say they have guns at home that aren’t stored safely,” Andrews said. “So this is a team effort: pediatricians, school districts, public health departments, and our lawmakers must all work together to reduce the incidence of these tragedies.”

It’s a natural part of a child’s development to want to learn and explore their surroundings, which is why their parents or guardians are responsible for making sure their spaces are safe, said Dr. Kelsey Gastineau, a pediatrician based in Nashville and a public health department. searcher.

Gastineau is also an activist with the Be SMART program, a framework to help normalize conversations and educate adults about safe gun storage. The campaign was launched in 2015 by Moms Demand Action, which has been fighting for gun safety measures since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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

“When these shootings happen, there’s so much desperation, there’s so much tragedy and fear that can ripple through communities,” Gastineau said, “It’s so important to give people a place to go and looking for something they can do.”

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