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A 6-year-old shooter raises tough questions for the criminal justice system


In Newport News, Va., authorities are still trying to figure out how a 6-year-old could get his hands on a gun. Police say the child brought his mother's gun to school in his backpack and shot his teacher in front of at least 16 other children who were in the classroom at the time. She's recovering from wounds in her hand and chest, but the incident has drawn attention to what's become a perennial tragedy in American schools.

RENE SANDLER: The number of victims is tremendous. Then that plays to the larger issue of our country - about the frequency of school shootings and access to weapons day in and day out. Some school someplace is dealing with this and creating waves and waves and waves of victims.

BROWN: That's Rene Sandler, an attorney who's familiar with navigating complex cases at the intersection of criminal and family law. Our co-host, A Martínez, spoke with Sandler about how a child who commits an act of violence like this can avoid being defined by it later in life.

SANDLER: We have to look at this case from a service standpoint as well as a legal standpoint. We have to identify the issues in the home. We have to protect a child's constitutional rights as well as, you know, any potential criminal or other circumstances, just as you would an adult.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: When you say from a service standpoint, what does that mean to you?

SANDLER: It means child welfare, child protective services. Typically, what's needed is a therapeutic evaluation. This child may have learning issues, may have mental health issues. There may be substance use in the home. There may be domestic violence in the home. We don't know the exposure of this child to other stressors or other things. And those will be identified by a companion investigation of a criminal case.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So it goes beyond, like, maybe what we would think of a defense attorney, who would be just trying to get their client off of the charges that are being levied against them.

SANDLER: Right. At 6 years old, or at an age really under the age of 11, you are looking at what the needs of this child and this family are. There may also be a companion actual prosecution of a child that young or a family member for allowing or not securing access to a firearm. But first and foremost are - what services are needed for this child?

MARTÍNEZ: At 6 years old, do they even have an understanding of what they've done?

SANDLER: In my experience of 30 years, a child that young has the inability to form certain mens rea or a certain mindset for specific intent and certainly cannot understand the nature of all the intricacies of a proceeding against him or her and can't meaningfully assist in his or her defense. So in strict terms, absolutely not.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to how the child accesses a weapon, how does a parent explain that their child somehow got their hands on a firearm?

SANDLER: I think it's a criminal investigation, just like any criminal case. Who lives in the home? In this case, for example, the gun was, by all reports, legally purchased. But it doesn't stop there. The gun was loaded, and certain laws in certain states require that a gun cannot be contained with its ammunition. In other words, it has to be separated. So it's education in the home, but a criminal investigation into every aspect of that home and where that gun originated, how it got there, how long it'd been there and who had access to the whereabouts of where it was stored.

MARTÍNEZ: At what age, though, are children held accountable or prosecuted, even, for their crimes?

SANDLER: One of the difficulties with young children being charged or being involved in a criminal system is that this is very state law driven. The overwhelming majority of states have no minimum age for prosecuting children, where others have the age of 7 or 8, 10, 11, 12 or 13. But 14 years old is the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility internationally.

MARTÍNEZ: So in a situation like this, at what point would there even be a discussion of the child being put back in the home with their parents?

SANDLER: So children can be removed from their home in the circumstances we have discussed and often times are until such time as the child welfare system, the state's attorney's office, you know, prosecutors, county attorneys, judge are satisfied that any dangers or any threats or anything in that regard that would either be abusive or neglectful to the child - any of those things have been removed. This child, once returned and once it's deemed safe for him to return - he will still be supervised and monitored going forward to make sure that everyone is doing their role and their part here.

MARTÍNEZ: And how can such a young child be made whole after something like this?

SANDLER: A lot of therapeutic interventions - in all likelihood, that child will not return to that school for a number of reasons - but a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of investment in this child and in this family by social service agencies and the family itself.

MARTÍNEZ: Have you been - or seen cases where, somehow, things get back toward a path where everyone can heal up? I mean, it just sounds like this is something that would take years - decades, even. But is there - have you ever seen anything in practice that makes things work again the way they should?

SANDLER: I have been involved in a case where an 8-year-old obtained a gun from his home, shot a 7-year-old. The gun was in his backpack. The father was charged with allowing access, if you will, by not properly securing an armed weapon - you know, a fully loaded weapon. That family healed. That family - the siblings, the parents - put in a tremendous amount of work, and they healed. And they're doing well, and everyone grew up and had productive, positive lives.

MARTÍNEZ: So it is possible, then. It seems like that mountain is so high.

SANDLER: That mountain is high right now. We are too early in the traumatic event for everyone involved. And there are multiple levels of investigations that are taking place, and we need to respect those investigations and see where they lead in the future for this family, this child, the teacher and everyone else.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Rene Sandler, an attorney based in Maryland. Rene, thank you very much.

SANDLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.