The headline has haunted me all weekend. I cannot stop thinking about this unimaginable scenario. A six-year-old child is angry and dysregulated, has access to an unlocked and loaded firearm, and brings it to school. This is not a far-flung script for a crime show, this is real life and it happened this past Friday at an elementary school in Newport News, Virginia.
The details are as murky as the path forward in terms of how to adjudicate a young child who engaged in a violent crime. The only information released is that the child and teacher were involved in an “altercation” and that the shooting was “intentional.” The teacher was originally listed in critical condition but has since been upgraded to stable. The child remains in police custody, but Virginia courts do not sentence children under 11 to juvenile detention centers. There is little precedent or case law for a path forward. In fact, Virginia has no safe storage laws for firearms, unlike other states like Massachusetts and Oregon (Bibeau et al, 2023).
There are far more questions than answers, but what is clear is that a young child had access to an unlocked and loaded weapon and used it in school. According to research provided by the K-12 Shooting Database, gun violence perpetrated by young children is exceptionally rare. The database, which has tracked school shootings going back to 1970, cites only 16 cases of shooters 10 years or younger (Bibeau et al., 2023).
Where do we go from here, as a nation, as school communities, and as households where guns may be readily accessible to our children? While the focus seems to immediately go to funding more mental health, the reality is that it’s the easy access to weapons that must be challenged and corrected.
Let’s follow the data meticulously collected by David Reidman, the creator of the K-12 Shooting Database:
There were 302 shootings in school property in 2022, more than in any other year since 1970. Since 2017, the number of shootings each year has significantly increased. This pattern matches the spiking rates of violent crime and gun crime across the country. It is important to remember that most shootings at schools are committed by current or former students, not outsiders breaking into the building. Because of this, school security plans need to include all levels of schools and shootings by all ages of students. – retrieved from The Conversation: First grader who shot teacher in Virginia is among the youngest school shooters in nation’s history
There are actions that would immediately impact student safety and well-being, the first one is to focus on the safe storage of guns in the home. Most school shooters use guns taken from home (Everytown Research, 2022).
School districts can help prevent school shootings by issuing notices to families about the critical importance of secure firearm storage in keeping schools and students safe. Presently, nearly three million students across the country live in a school district that issues such notices. But there is more work to be done–this amounts to only 6 percent of the United States’ nearly 50 million public schoolchildren.
I strongly believe that we can do so much more than issue notices, we can provide safe storage education and gun locks at back-to-school nights and health fairs. These are the kind of bold solutions that are required to meet the enormity of the public health epidemic of gun violence in our country. Can you imagine if NASN and Moms Demand Action teamed up to bring the Be Smart program to all schools through the school nurses’ offices?
Before COVID interrupted all of our lives, I attended a #NurseHackathon and proposed school nurses offer gun locks and education in our school health offices. My Hackathon team embraced the idea and we spent the weekend envisioning a program we called #LockItToStopIt. That memorable weekend in November of 2018, here is a blog post I wrote about the experience and my amazing team of nurses: The Relentless School Nurse: A Letter of Appreciation to my #NurseHackathon Team
It is time to revisit this idea. Who will join me?
Bibeau, P., Mervosh, S., & Arango, T. (2023, January 8). After 6-year-old is accused in school shooting, many questions and a murky legal path. The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/07/us/virginia-shooting-richneck-elementary.html
How to stop shootings and gun violence in schools: A plan to keep students safe. Everytown Research & Policy. (2022, September 14). Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://everytownresearch.org/report/how-to-stop-shootings-and-gun-violence-in-schools/