SPARKS, Nevada (Reuters) - A 12-year-old boy who shot dead a teacher and wounded two fellow students at his Nevada middle school likely brought the gun from home, raising questions about whether the parents could face liability, police said on Tuesday.
A day after the shooting, police were searching for reasons why the boy, among the youngest school shooters in U.S. history, opened fire with a Ruger 9mm semi-automatic handgun in his schoolyard just before the opening bell on Monday.
“Everybody wants to know why, that’s the big question,” said Tom Miller, deputy police chief for the northern Nevada town of Sparks, where the shooting took place. “The answer is, we don’t know right now, but we are proactively trying to determine why.”
A popular math teacher who tried to intervene to stop the shooting was killed in the gunfire, and two other 12-year-olds were wounded before the boy, a seventh grader, took his own life.
Police have so far declined to identify the young shooter, citing a need to protect his grieving parents, who were cooperating with the investigation. Police have said they believe he obtained the gun from his home.
Asked at a news conference whether the parents could face charges for not preventing the boy from accessing the gun, Miller said: “That is basically a question for the local prosecutor, but the potential is there.”
Nevada law bars any person from knowingly permitting a child to handle or possess a firearm except under adult supervision, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Police are continuing to investigate exactly how the boy got the gun, and have interviewed the parents of the shooter, police spokesman Erick Thomas said. But for now authorities were more focused on pinning down what happened at the scene.
“No decision has been made to investigate or go that route at this time. We’re still working on the other parts of the investigation,” Thomas said.
The District Attorney for Washoe County, which includes Sparks, could not be reached for comment on the matter.
The shooting was the latest in a string of U.S. gun rampages in recent years, including one in December at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 students and six adults last year and helped reignite a national debate over gun control.
But Monday’s violence marked one of only a handful of U.S. school shootings carried out by children not yet in their teens, including a 1998 incident in which two boys aged 11 and 13 opened fire at an Arkansas middle school, killing five people.
“Kids 12 and younger typically aren’t involved in lethal violence, which is a good thing,” said Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, saying that fewer than 2 percent of U.S. juveniles arrested for homicide between 1976 and 2007 were age 12 or younger.
“I think part of that is there may be more supervision, less access to weapons and less access to violent images and violent messages,” she added.
Some students at Sparks Middle School have told media that the shooter was bullied, although police have not said whether bullying could have led to the shooting.
As police seek to determine a motive in the shooting spree, which lasted less than three minutes, they were also hailing the actions of slain teacher Michael Landsberry and said more students could have been hurt if staff members had not rushed children into classrooms from the school yard.
The head of the school district’s police force said that after the attacker shot a 12-year-old boy in the shoulder, Landsberry “calmly walked toward the shooter, putting his hands up in a motion to try to stop” him and was shot in the chest.
“Mr. Landsberry’s heroic actions by stepping toward the shooter allowed time for other students on the playground area to flee the area,” said Washoe County School District Police Chief Mike Mieras.
Landsberry, 45, had taught at Sparks Middle School since 2006 and coached basketball, volleyball and soccer teams, Mieras said. A former U.S. Marine, Landsberry was a master sergeant in the Nevada Air National Guard and served in Afghanistan in 2006 where he directed cargo air traffic at a base, said guard spokesman Dennis Fournier.
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andre Grenon and Ken Wills