Heroes: Utah parents disarm son, prevent potential school shooting

The incident may turn debate back toward parents' roles in keeping their kids from committing acts of gun violence.

Rick Bowmer/AP
A police officer carries his weapon as he walks along the street in front of Mueller Park Junior High after a student fired a gun into the ceiling on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Bountiful, Utah.

In a press conference in Bountiful, Utah, Police Chief Tom Ross described how a boy entered a classroom and discharged a shotgun round into the ceiling before pointing the weapon at himself. The parents, who were already inside the school, heard the shot. As a teacher and other students tried to talk the boy out of harming himself, his parents arrived and disarmed their son.

Calvin Smith, a student who was in the classroom at the time, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in a 9th grade earth science class when the alleged shooter entered wearing a long black trenchcoat. Students took cover under their desks, with one telling the Associated Press that "a woman" intervened, taking away the gun and pulling the boy into the hallway.

"It was really scary," said fellow student Dan Fowers in an interview with the AP. "The look on his face, it kind of looked like he wanted to do some damage."

More than half of the nation’s states have Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws on the books allowing for the prosecution of parents and adults who don’t take sufficient steps to keep guns away from minors. The toughest hold parents criminally liable when a minor gains access; others simply ban adults from directly giving guns to kids. In Utah, for instance, parents can’t be penalized for negligence if minors get access to their firearms, but they can’t knowingly provide them with guns if the minor has been convicted of a violent felony, or adjudicated in juvenile court for a crime that would be a violent felony, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The state requires parents or guardians to make "reasonable efforts" to take away the firearm if they know the child has gotten their hands on it.

Some studies suggests that CAP laws bring down the rates of accidental shootings and suicides among children, according to a report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, but there’s little research on how relevant such studies are in cases where minors seek to act out violently.

If there’s a firearm in the house, it’s not so unusual for it to be unsecured: A national study from 2005 found that between 1.5 million and 1.8 million minors live with loaded and unlocked firearms somewhere in their house. But prosecutors are generally reluctant to hit parents with charges after their child hurts someone with a gun – a trend that needs to change, some gun-control proponents have argued.

Many kids know where their parents' guns are kept, or are bound to figure it out, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote in 2015, but "we can encourage parents to make sure their guns are secured. Cruel as it may sound to prosecute a parent dealing with the fallout from an accidental shooting, holding adults accountable for failing to lock up their weapons would at the very least create an incentive for them to be less careless." 

But few juries want to inflict further punishment on a grieving family, as Ms. Lithwick pointed out. Instead, some safety advocates emphasize less punitive policy responses, as Citizens Crime Commission president Richard Aborn did a commentary in The Christian Science Monitor. Those responses, wrote Mr. Aborn, should include a much stronger and better-coordinated effort "among state governments, firearms dealers, law enforcement, health-care workers, and gun manufacturers ... to ensure that as many gun owners receive basic safety information and warnings about irresponsible firearm storage," as well as more investment in research "to better understand why children use guns against others and how to stop them." 

"The parents and relatives who have enabled children to use their guns to kill surely feel remorse, and may even face criminal and civil prosecution for their negligence. But Americans, too, should feel responsible when these heart-breaking deaths occur because we have not done enough, as a country, to prevent them," he said.

In the Utah shooting, the woman who took away the armed teen's gun and pulled him into the hallway was later identified as his mother.

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