Nevada school shooting: Could parents face criminal charges?

How did the student in the Nevada school shooting get a gun? That's not yet known. But a police official says there is the 'potential' that parents could face charges.

Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee/AP
Sparks Deputy Police Chief Tom Miller speaks at a news conference Tuesday, in Sparks, Nev. Miller said his department will not release the name of the 12-year-old gunman in Monday's shootings at Sparks Middle School out of respect for his family.

The facts are still emerging from the Nevada school shooting Monday, in which a 12-year-old student at Sparks Middle School allegedly shot and killed a popular math teacher and injured two male classmates before killing himself. Even the name of the shooter has still not been released.

But among the facts authorities have revealed is that they believe the shooter got the Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic handgun used in the attack from his home.

The boy reportedly brought the gun to school grounds and, just before classes started for the day, wounded one student, shot and killed math teacher Mike Landsberry, and wounded another student before turning the gun on himself.

While it’s too soon to know how the shooter was able to get access to the gun he brought from home, most underage school shooters obtain their weapons from home, a relative, or another home where they knew guns were kept. Questions are already being raised about whether any adults could be held criminally liable if they are proven to have negligently allowed the student access to the firearm.

At a news conference, Sparks Deputy Police Chief Tom Miller said the local prosecutor will have to determine whether to press charges against the shooter’s parents if, in fact, the gun came from their home, “but the potential is there.”

Other examples also point to that possibility, but they suggest that the prosecution of such cases varies widely, whether or not states have laws specifically targeting negligent parents.

For its part, Nevada is one of 27 states that does have a Child Access Prevention (CAP) law. But some laws are more stringent than others.

Nevada, like 12 other states, prohibits only intentional, knowing, or reckless provision of firearms to minors. Several other states impose liability if the child actually uses the firearm. Only three – Massachusetts, Minnesota, and California (plus the District of Columbia) – impose liability when a child “may” or “is likely to” gain access to a gun, even if they never do.

Of these, Massachusetts is the only state that has a true “safe storage” law on the books, says Sam Hoover, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Massachusetts law requires that guns be locked at all times in the home, except when used in self-defense. In addition, all guns in Massachusetts must be kept with a locking device in place.

Yet even in those states that don't have CAP laws, some prosecutors have found ways to go after gun owners who fail to keep weapons out of children's hands.

“It’s a fairly straightforward civil liability case that a parent can be held liable for failing to adequately secure a gun away from a young person, and there have been a number of civil suits over the years, and a number of reported cases around the country of holding gun owners to the highest degree of care in securing their weapons,” says Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Washington, a non-CAP state, both a 9-year-old boy’s mother and her boyfriend were criminally charged after the boy brought a loaded gun to school and it went off in his backpack, critically injuring a classmate. Prosecutors said that giving the boy access to the gun constituted an “extreme act of negligence.”

The boy’s mother, a felon, eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm in exchange for having the assault charge against her dropped. Her boyfriend is still appealing his charge of third-degree assault.

Meanwhile in Ohio, also a non-CAP state, the uncle of sophomore T.J. Lane, who killed three students and wounded three others at Chardon High School in February 2012, was never charged with any crime, though T.J. reportedly stole the handgun he used from his uncle. Instead, parents of the three students killed filed a wrongful death lawsuit, charging that T.J.'s parents and grandparents failed to supervise him, and in doing so, “facilitated, contributed to, and otherwise failed to prevent the fatal shooting."

The National Rifle Association has argued that CAP laws have done nothing to improve gun safety, and strict gun-storage laws could leave people unable to defend themselves adequately if their home is invaded.

But gun-control activists suggest that, in many cases, parents should be among those held liable when accidents or intentional violence results.

“There’s no question that parents and gun owners should be held accountable,” says Mr. Lowy. “Gun owners should – and most do – store their guns safely. When you don’t and bad things foreseeably happen, of course you should be held accountable. With rights come responsibilities.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some 1.7 million children and youth in the US lived with loaded and unlocked guns in their home in 2002. But guns, Lowy notes, are the only consumer product in America exempt from authority by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

“Under federal law, if a BB gun does not have a feasible safety feature which would save lives, the CPSC can recall that product,” says Lowy. “But the CPSC has no such authority over real guns.”

He compares the situation to that of seat belts – which at one point weren’t even a standard feature in many cars, before eventually becoming required pre-installed features, before their usage became law, and which were then accompanied by air bags. “In guns, we are at the pre-installed seatbelt stage of technology – a lock that’s not attached to the gun comes with it, and you could throw it in the garbage if you want,” Lowy says.

Newer “smart guns” – which can only be fired by an authorized user – are an even higher level of safety, “more akin to the airbag.”

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