He was 6 years old in first grade in Newport News, Virginia. He pointed the gun at the teacher and then pulled the trigger, police said. And across the country, people… didn’t quite know how to react.
Even in a country where gun violence is sadly commonplace, the story of a little boy with a gun resonates. There was finger pointing. Confusion. Looking for answers. Mass deal with deeply uncomfortable feelings. And questions: how could this happen? Where in the national consciousness are we taking it?
“The fact that a 6-year-old first grader brought a loaded gun to school and shot a teacher is almost impossible to imagine,” Mayor Philip Jones said that day, January 6. “However, this is exactly what our community is struggling with today.”
But it’s not just his community, 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. Nevertheless, many throw up their hands on this. In a land flooded with hot takes, this is a head scratcher. Heartbreaking, even.
“I never thought elementary school students would shoot up,” says Kendra Newton, a first-grade teacher in Florida.
This could be because it’s not what people are used to. Jennifer Talarico, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., thinks the case is different, in part because it defies societal expectations of how school shootings (of which there were two more in the country that day) , and until childhood itself.
“Unfortunately, we have patterns, we have rubrics, we have archetypes of school shootings in this country. We have a kind of script for these things,” said Talarico, who has studied how people remember vicariously experienced events. “Using the phrase ‘school shooting’ as shorthand makes us develop this story in our heads, and when the facts of the case are so different … that’s what’s amazing.”
Americans childhood is commonly seen as the epitome of the best in our society and values, Talarica says—innocence, fun, joy, love. Anything that challenges this deeply held view opens up difficult questions about the culture and community in which the child is raised – whether that is the local culture and community or the entire nation.
“It’s hard self-reflection,” she says. “That’s why this story resonates with people.”
Americans are left to contend with a scenario that doesn’t fit into either bucket. But as surprising as it is, there’s a danger in trying to pigeonhole the incident, says Marsha Levick, general counsel and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center.
She believes that Americans are “so stuck in the place of punishment” that they have lost the ability to have conversations beyond those boundaries. By labeling the shooting as “intentional,” Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew is urging people to view it as a criminal act, Levick said.
“It’s funny. This is absurd. It completely contradicts science and what we know about human and child development,” she says. “Let’s own it. It was not a criminal act.’
Levick would like to see law enforcement recognize that “this is not our lane,” as they did more than two decades ago in one of the few cases in 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 District Attorney Arthur Bush didn’t go after the boy, but those who gave him access to the gun.
In an interview last week, Bush said he was surprised by the repeated use of “deliberate” by Newport News police.
“It was like fingers on a blackboard 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 an intention.”
Bush, who later became an attorney and retired in 2018, remembers visiting the boy in a group home and squeezing into the child’s chair to talk. The boy proudly showed him painted pictures and 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,” Bush said. “It was obvious that he was not spewing any diabolical schemes. He was a normal little kid. He was a child, to a great extent.”
Bush remembers being surprised when he was told of the shooting in 2000. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around it,” he said. But he immediately understood that no charges would be filed.
“The only thing that needs to be done with this boy is to get him out of this situation, find a better place for him,” Bush said. “This kid has probably never seen love in his life. We needed to embrace him as a community, love him and protect him.”
The Virginia case is sure to spark a debate about gun control and school safety. But Moira O’Neill, who led New Hampshire’s Office of Child Protective Services for five years, says there are a few simple steps anyone feeling shaken by the incident can take. She says a wealth of research shows that the best way to support a child’s development and build resilience is to offer children a sense of belonging.
In short: don’t let the shock paralyze you. Take steps to value children in your community.
“It’s not a big commitment. It’s just knowing the kids, knowing their names and creating the impression that if they need help, they can ask,” she said. “When neighbors choose to settle for shock without considering how they can contribute to the well-being and safety of children, they send a message that children are not valued.”
Whether all the speculation surrounding the Virginia shooting will lead to change remains to be seen. Talarico, whose work involves studying the “memory-laden language” that often surrounds big events, says imperatives like “Never forget” don’t always lead to broad action — especially when guns are involved.
“Never forget,” she says, “doesn’t translate to ‘never again.’
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.