Shooting by 6-year-old raises complex cultural questions

Jan 18, 2023, 6:58 AM | Updated: 5:21 pm
Willow Crawford, left, and her older sister Ava, right, join friend Kaylynn Vestre, center, in expr...

Willow Crawford, left, and her older sister Ava, right, join friend Kaylynn Vestre, center, in expressing their support for Richneck Elementary School first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner during a candlelight vigil in her honor at the School Administration Building in Newport News, Va., Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Zwerner was shot and wounded by a 6-year-old student while teaching class on Friday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

(AP Photo/John C. Clark)

He was 6, in his first-grade class in Newport News, Virginia. He pointed a handgun at his teacher, police say, and then he pulled the trigger. And across the nation, people … didn’t quite know how to react.

Even in a country where gun violence is sadly commonplace, the story of a small boy with a gun is reverberating in a big way. There has been finger-pointing. Confusion. Floundering for answers. Mass grappling with deeply uncomfortable feelings. And questions: How could something like this possibly happen? Where in the national consciousness do we put it?

“It is almost impossible to wrap our minds around the fact that a 6-year-old first-grader brought a loaded handgun to school and shot a teacher,” Mayor Phillip Jones said that day, Jan. 6. “However, this is exactly what our community is grappling with today.”

It’s not just his community, though, and it wasn’t just that day. This is a country full of people who know exactly what they think about everything, and say so. Yet many are throwing their hands up at this. In a land awash in hot takes, it’s a head-scratcher. A heart-scratcher, even.

“I never thought elementary students being the shooter was a possibility we would ever see,” says Kendra Newton, a first-grade teacher in Florida.

That may be because it sits outside what people are accustomed to. Jennifer Talarico, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, believes the case hits differently in part because it violates society’s expectations for both school shootings (of which there were two others elsewhere in the country that day) and childhood itself.

“Sadly, we have schemas, we have rubrics, we have archetypes for school shootings in this country. We have a sort of script for these things,” said Talarico, who has studied how people remember indirectly experienced events. “Using the phrase ‘school shooting’ as a shorthand leads us to develop that story in our heads, and when the facts of the case are so different … that is what is surprising.”

Americans typically view childhood as an encapsulation of the best of our society and values, Talarico says — innocence, fun, joy, love. Anything that challenges that deep-seated view unearths complicated questions about the culture and community in which a child is being raised — whether it be local culture and community or the entire nation.

“That’s some hard self-reflection,” she says. “That is why the story is resonating with people.”

Americans are left struggling with a scenario that doesn’t fit into any bucket. But as jarring as that may feel, there’s a danger in trying to force the incident into a familiar framework, says Marsha Levick, chief legal officer and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center.

She believes Americans have become “so stuck in a place of punishment” that they have lost the ability to have conversations outside those boundaries. By labeling the shooting with the loaded word “intentional,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew is inviting people to view it as a criminal act, Levick asserts.

“That is ludicrous. It is absurd. It is utterly inconsistent with science and what we know about human development and child development,” she says. “Let’s own that. This was not a criminal act.”

Levick would like law enforcement to acknowledge that “this is not our lane,” as it did more than two decades ago in one of the few cases from the recent past that bears some resemblance to the Virginia shooting. When a 6-year-old boy shot and killed a classmate in Michigan in 2000, Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney Arthur Busch didn’t go after the boy, but after those who provided access to the gun.

In an interview last week, Busch said he’s been surprised by the repeated use of “intentional” by Newport News police.

“It was like fingernails on a chalkboard when I heard the police say it was intentional,” he said. “We don’t call it intentional when it’s a 6-year-old. … He’s not old enough to have intent.”

Busch, who later became a defense attorney and retired in 2018, remembers visiting the boy at a group home and squeezing into a child-sized chair to chat. The boy proudly showed him pictures he had colored and his favorite toys. A smile revealed two missing front teeth, and they talked about the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny.

“He was excited because he knew he was going to get candy,” Busch said. “It was quite clear that he was not hatching any diabolical plots. He was just a typical little kid. He was a baby, pretty much.”

Busch remembers being dumbfounded when notified of the 2000 shooting. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around that,” he said. But he knew immediately he wouldn’t bring any charges.

“The only thing to do with that boy is get him out of that situation, find the best place for him,” Busch said. “This kid had probably never seen love in his life. We needed to wrap our arms around him as a community, and love and protect him.”

The Virginia case is sure to stir debate about gun control and school safety. But Moira O’Neill, who led New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate for five years, says anyone feeling shaken by the incident can take a few simple steps. She says an abundance of research shows that the best way to support child development and promote resilience is to offer children a sense of belonging.

In short: Don’t let your shock paralyze you. Take steps to value children in your own community.

“This is not a big commitment. This is simply knowing the kids, knowing their names, and giving the impression if they need help they can ask,” she said. “If neighbors choose to settle with being shocked, without thinking through ways they can contribute to child well-being and safety, they are sending the message that the children are not valued.”

Whether all the reflection around the Virginia shooting leads to change remains to be seen. Talarico, whose work includes studying the “memory-laden language” that often surrounds big events, says imperatives like “Never Forget” don’t always lead to sweeping action — particularly when it comes to guns.

“‘Never Forget’,” she says, “hasn’t effectively translated to ‘Never Again.'”


Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

              Community members clap in support of Evelyn Cox as she speaks about poor behavior from students in front of the Newport News School Board at the Newport News Public Schools Administration building on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Newport News, Va. Community members spoke about issues and solutions to violence in schools following the shooting at Richneck Elementary by a six-year-old that left a teacher in critical condition. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
              A candle is lifted into the air as residents of Newport News hold a candlelight vigil in honor of Richneck Elementary School first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner at the School Administration Building in Newport News, Va., Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Zwerner was shot and wounded by a 6-year-old student while teaching class on Friday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)
              Rosalie List, a coworker at Richneck Elementary, wipes a tear from her eye while speaking during a vigil for Abby Zwerner, the teacher shot by a 6-year-old student at Richneck Elementary, in front of the Newport News Public Schools Administration Building on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Newport News, Va. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
              Willow Crawford, left, and her older sister Ava, right, join friend Kaylynn Vestre, center, in expressing their support for Richneck Elementary School first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner during a candlelight vigil in her honor at the School Administration Building in Newport News, Va., Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Zwerner was shot and wounded by a 6-year-old student while teaching class on Friday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)


A person wearing a protective mask walks in front of an electronic stock board showing Japan's Nikk...
Associated Press

Asian shares trade mixed ahead of US jobs report

TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares were trading mixed Friday ahead of a closely watched U.S. jobs report that may affect global interest rates. Weaker than expected earnings reports from U.S. technology companies, announced after Wall Street trading ended, pulled Chinese benchmarks lower. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 added 0.4% in afternoon trading to 27,501.03. Australia’s S&P/ASX […]
1 day ago
FILE - Travelers wearing face masks with their luggage head to the immigration counter at the depar...
Associated Press

China, Hong Kong scrap cross-border travel quota, COVID test

HONG KONG (AP) — Travel between Hong Kong and China will no longer require COVID-19 PCR tests nor be held to a daily limit, authorities announced Friday, as both places seek to drive economic growth. Hong Kong’s tourism industry has suffered since 2019 after months of political strife that at times turned into violent clashes […]
1 day ago
Peter Ellingwood delivers heating oil, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Farmington, Maine. On Friday, the...
Associated Press

January may have delivered lower, if still solid, job growth

WASHINGTON (AP) — The American economy has an unusual problem: The job market looks too strong — at least to the inflation fighters at the Federal Reserve. Companies are still seeking more workers and are hanging tightly onto the ones they have. Putting aside some high-profile layoffs at big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon […]
1 day ago
FILE - Attendees walk past a booth advertising 5G telecommunications services at the PT Expo in Bei...
Associated Press

Chill pervades China’s tech firms even as crackdown eases

HONG KONG (AP) — A grinding crackdown that wiped billions of dollars of value off Chinese technology companies is easing, but the once-freewheeling industry is bracing for much slower growth ahead. Analysts say China’s easing of restrictions on companies like e-commerce giant Alibaba and online games company Tencent and talk of support for the private […]
1 day ago
Australia's Nick Kyrgios, left, and Serbia's Novak Djokovic shake hands following an exhibition mat...
Associated Press

Kyrgios pleads guilty to assault, has no conviction recorded

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Nick Kyrgios had suffered severe depression, suicidal ideation and insomnia in the past, a psychologist told a court on Friday when the Australian tennis star pleaded guilty to pushing a former girlfriend to the ground two years ago. The 2022 Wimbledon runner-up pleaded guilty in the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court […]
1 day ago
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly discusses plans by Integra Technologies, of Wichita, Kansas, to build a new...
Associated Press

Kansas commits $304M to chip plant to lure federal funds

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas plans to give $304 million in taxpayer-funded incentives to a semiconductor company in its largest city to build a huge new factory, but the project won’t go forward without funds the U.S. government has promised for rebuilding the nation’s chip-making capacity. Gov. Laura Kelly announced Thursday that Kansas has an […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
Shooting by 6-year-old raises complex cultural questions