It’s been less than a year since the tragic Newtown massacre. Yet, sadly, another school shooting is in the news. On Tuesday, a student at Sparks Middle School in Nevada, shot and killed a teacher and wounded two others before turning the gun on himself.
This time the “gunman” was reportedly only 12 years old – just a boy. As our nation struggles with more and more of these horrific events, society is left wondering why these shootings occur and who is to blame.
During a recent news conference, Sparks Deputy Police Chief Tom Miller told reporters it appears the shooter’s 9mm handgun came from his home and that it will be up to local prosecutor to determine whether the shooter’s parents my face criminal charges.
That’s because Nevada has Child Access Prevention (CAP) Laws for Guns. Adopted relatively recently, these laws impose criminal liability on adults who negligently leave firearms accessible to children or otherwise allow children access to firearms. Intended to prevent firearm injuries caused by children by limiting their access to guns, CAP Laws are currently on the books in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Neither Ohio nor the federal government has child access prevention laws at the time of this writing.
Aside from possible criminal charges, the young shooters parents may also face civil suits.
Liability of parents and guardians in a school shooting
Under common law in Ohio, parents or legal guardians are generally not responsible for damages caused by their children unless the damages can be directly attributable to some action or inaction of the parent. This can happen in different ways. According to the Ohio Supreme Court:
- Parents may be liable if they negligently entrust their child with an instrument (such as a gun or car) which, because of the child’s immaturity or lack of experience, may become a source of danger to others
- A parent may be held responsible for failure to exercise reasonable control over the child when the parent knows, or should know, that injury to another is a probable consequence
- When parents know of the child’s wrongdoing and consent to it, direct it, or sanction it, they may be held liable
See Huston v. Konieczny, 52 Ohio St. 3d 214, 217 (1990).
To prevail in a negligent supervision complaint, plaintiffs must show that: (1) the parents knew of their child’s particular reckless or negligent tendencies (thus knew they needed to exercise control over him); (2) the parents had the ability to exercise control; and (3) the parents did not exercise that control. Hau v. Gill, 1999 Ohio App. LEXIS 3258 (Ohio Ct. App., Lorain County July 14, 1999) (Citations omitted.) “Plaintiffs must also show that the alleged parental negligence was the proximate and foreseeable cause of the injury suffered.” Cogswell v. Clark Retail Ent., 11th Dist. No. 2003-G-2519, 2004-Ohio-5640.
Ohio also has a parental liability law, which entitles the injured party to a statutory award of up to $10,000 from each natural parent and/or custodial guardian “if the child willfully and maliciously assaults the person by a means or force likely to produce great bodily harm.” (Ohio Revised Code § 3109.10). The court may find parents not to be negligent, but still enforce the strict parental liability statute.
Storing firearms at home
The presence of unlocked guns in the home increases the risk of both unintentional gun injuries and intentional shootings. We urge all gun owners to store their guns safely and all parents to talk to their children about gun safety. Safe Kids Worldwide offers these safety tips:
Store Guns and Ammunition Safely
- Store firearms in a locked location, unloaded, out of the reach and sight of children
- Store ammunition in a separate locked location, out of the reach and sight of children
- Keep the keys and combinations hidden
- When a gun is not in its lock box, keep it in your line of sight
- Make sure all firearms are equipped with effective, child-resistant gun locks
- If a visitor has a firearm in a backpack, briefcase, handbag or an unlocked car, provide them with a locked place to hold it while they are in your home
- Leaving firearms on a nightstand, table or other place where a child can gain access may lead to injuries and fatalities
Many groups recommend storing your guns in a safe with a UL RSC rating. Tested by Underwriters Laboratory (UL), an independent testing laboratory, a RSC (Residential Security Container) is able to withstand five minutes of rigorous prying, drilling, chiseling, and tampering attacks using common burglary tools.
Talk to Your Kids and Their Caregivers
- Explain how a gun your kids might see on television or a video game is different from a gun in real life
- Teach kids never to touch a gun and to immediately tell an adult if they see one
- Talk to grandparents and the parents of friends your children visit about safe gun storage practices
Dispose of Guns You Don’t Need
If you decide that you no longer need to have a firearm in your home, dispose of it in a safe way. Consult with law enforcement in your community on how to do so.
“Nevada school shooting: Could parents face criminal charges?” by Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, October 22, 2013.
“Child Access Prevention Policy Summary” Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Updated August 2013.