Editorial: After another senseless tragedy, emotions no substitute for community action

Shock. Anger. Sorrow. Outrage.

Even as those emotions flow in abundance following Friday’s shooting at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, none seems sufficient. That a 6-year-old boy would bring a firearm to a schoolhouse and use it to harm his teacher — which the police chief said was no accident — defies comprehension.

And it should prompt serious introspection, not just for the individuals directly linked to these events, but for our whole community. Only in the most troubled of societies would a child have access to a firearm and the willingness to fire it at a teacher in a school classroom.

That is a profound failure by us all, and it demands we commit ourselves to enacting proven policies and promising solutions to combat gun violence in our communities.

When reports emerged Friday afternoon of a shooting at a Newport News elementary school, fear took firm hold of our imagination and plunged it toward the worst-case scenario — a repeat of the sickening 2012 violence at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

As the circumstances of this incident became clearer, this was something different. Authorities report that a 6-year-old boy in first grade shot 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner. The teacher suffered life-threatening wounds but was recovering and in stable condition over the weekend — a small miracle.

“This was not an accidental shooting,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said Friday. A girl told a Daily Press reporter that the boy fired one round “on purpose.”

On Monday, Drew described Zwerner as “a hero,” saying that her quick reaction to usher her children out of the classroom saved lives.

Law enforcement will investigate this crime — with a focus on how and where the boy got the firearm — and seek to hold those responsible to account for their actions. That will be complicated as it pertains to the suspect.

Andrew Block, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, told the Daily Press that prosecution is unlikely because of the “infancy defense,” the idea that young children are incapable of forming criminal intent and therefore aren’t legally capable of committing a crime.

It’s sad to think that our communities must be faced with such a quandary. Child development experts say that middle childhood (ages 6-8) is a pivotal period for kids. They start to exert their independence and start to grasp their place in the world. They think about the future — theirs and others — and begin to form lasting bonds of friendship with their peers.

But so much of that development is still coalescing for children only months removed from pre-school. These are not fully-formed adults, not teenagers or even pre-teens. A 6-year-old is just a child, someone who should be cared for and nurtured and protected from the ills of the world.

So what does it say about us when a child can obtain a handgun, bring it to school and use it against a teacher? What does it say about Newport News and about our region?

For one, it says that we’re not doing enough to keep guns away from those who shouldn’t have them — a seemingly intractable problem and one that demands stronger punishment for gun owners whose firearms are used in crimes. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax County, plans to introduce a bill that would stiffen penalties for not securing firearms in homes with minors, which is a good place to start.

But it also requires us to take a big-picture view of gun violence, to treat it as the public health crisis it clearly is, and to implement strategies that rally whole communities — parents and law enforcement, medical professionals and mental health counselors, educators and faith leaders and everyone else who wants safer communities — to build a better, safer future.

There is no sufficient response aside from action. This is our failure and we must make it right.