#19: Teenage Shooters

Table of Contents:

Teenage Shooters
Just A Terrible Day
Minimum Age Laws
Cognitive Dysfunction
School Shootings & Student Mental Health
Sentencing Teenage Shooters


Teenage Shooters

Age is neither a barrier nor a bridge. Most states make you stay in school in school until you’re sixteen. You can’t buy a handgun until you’re twenty-one.[1] But you can buy a long rifle at eighteen.[2] Theoretically, minimum age laws prevent young people from falling prey to preventable gun violence. Parents who act like children do the opposite—some create opportunities for young people to die, kill, and engage in many behaviors leading to their deaths. Gun violence is not age-related.

Just A Terrible Day

The Albuquerque Journal August 14, 2021 front-page headline screamed, “Just A Terrible Day” in the largest font they had. The subtitle was only slightly smaller—“Student Dead—Another In Custody—Following Shooting At Middle School.”[3] The story with pictures took up the top half of the front page that terrible day—Saturday, August 14, 2021. Oversized color pictures showed a mother consoling her Washington Middle School student and a long line of concerned parents waiting for the police to clear the scene and release the lucky students—the ones who lived.

Washington Middle School serves approximately 500 students in grades six through eight in downtown Albuquerque New Mexico. Its website is state of the art with all the necessary information tabs—Shelter in Place/Lockdown—School Safety—Handbook/Student Agenda—School Wellness Profile.[4] That site includes a letter from the Principal to all school families. “With great sadness, I must inform you of a shooting that occurred on the Washington Middle School campus today that resulted in the death of one of our students and the arrest of another. This was an isolated incident that occurred outside the school building during lunch. No other students or staff were physically harmed, but many of us are hurting . . . I want to thank our courageous school staff who rushed our students to safety. I want to commend students who bravely followed directions, helping to keep the situation under control. I appreciate our families who came to the school to take their children home safely. And I want to thank all of the APS and APD police officers who rushed to our campus to assure the safety of our students and staff, especially our own school resource officer, who immediately deescalated the situation and kept everyone else from harm.”[5] The principal didn’t mention the ages of shooter or victim. Both were thirteen.

AT 12:52 p.m. the principal announced, Washington Middle School is a “Shelter In Place” due to police activity in the area. An update on the site at 4:11 p.m. that afternoon confirmed the cancellation of all classes for the weekend. Grief counselors were available on the campus and would be there throughout the weekend. The school will also have increased police presence. At 5:16 p.m., the principal announced the campus was secure.[6]

A thirteen-year-old student who had been playing basketball close to the crime scene described what he heard. “I heard boom, boom, boom, boom, boom five times. Me and my friend, we thought it came from the park … Then his best friend came over crying and everything. What happened? He just got shot.”[7]

Later that evening, “Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina called the boy who died a ‘hero’ who lost his life because ‘a classmate brought a gun to school.’ He stood up for a friend and tried to de-escalate a violent confrontation between classmates,” Medina said. “This incident is a tragedy that has shaken our community.”

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said, ““Our officers put themselves in danger to keep people safe. Today was no exception as a school police officer ran toward danger to disarm a shooter and treat the victim who had just been shot. She may have saved other lives. Sadly, a child lost his life because a classmate brought a gun to school. The boy who lost his life is also a hero. He stood up for a friend and tried to de-escalate a violent confrontation between classmates. This incident is a tragedy that has shaken our community.”[8]

Both boys were in the eighth grade. Given their immaturity, it took a week for more information to leak out. Four days later the Associated Press released a follow-up story. It turns out the young shooter’s family had a record of gun violence, with the same gun their son used to kill a classmate. “The shooting happened during the lunch hour at Washington Middle School in front of numerous students, who had returned for the fall semester just two days earlier. Police have said the victim was trying to protect another boy who was being bullied.” A Children’s Court judge agreed with prosecutors and ordered the boy to remain at the Bernalillo County Youth Services Center. He is charged with an open count of murder and unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon on school premises. The suspect’s court-appointed attorney raised issues of the boy’s competency during his initial appearance, saying the teen needs counseling and treatment for mental health issues. The Juvenile Judge ruled that the boy poses a danger to others and noted the allegations against him. Court records, police reports and witnesses detail the history of the suspect’s family with Albuquerque Public Schools and the criminal history of the boy’s father.[9]

Subsequent news stories revealed more information. One headline the next day blared, “Who Was Washington Middle School Shooting Victim? 13-Year Old Bully Fired Six Bullets.”[10] The story continued, “In November 2015, an elementary school teacher said she was in a classroom with a parent and her daughter when, without warning, the suspect’s mother came into the room and attacked the other mother. In 2018, a fight between parents that started with words and a fist escalated to poles, bats and gunfire in the student pickup lane outside Highland High School. The suspect’s father had shot and wounded another parent, but police never filed any charges after finding that both men had defense claims. In 2013, the suspect’s father was arrested on drug trafficking charges after police found a methamphetamine pipe and several bags of the drug on him. The man told police he was selling meth to get extra money for his daughter’s 15th birthday, according to a police report. The case was later dismissed.”[11] What that report didn’t say was the man’s son, then eleven years old, watched as his father shot another man with same gun he would use two years later at Washington Middle School.

Minimum Age Laws

From a strictly legal point-of-view, “laws imposing minimum age requirements for the possession and purchase of firearms are intended to decrease access to firearms by young people and, correspondingly, to decrease the number of suicides, homicides, and unintentional shootings among that population. Given that young people are at elevated risk of engaging in violent behaviors against themselves or others, these laws have the potential to protect a particularly vulnerable group.”[12]

While you can’t buy a handgun until you’re eighteen, you can enlist in the U.S. military at age seventeen, with parental consent. At eighteen, you can join without parental consent. Apparently, one day makes a difference in your cognitive ability from a military standpoint. But even members of the U.S. military cannot buy a handgun in uniform, on base, or not. That’s not from lack of trying, or from lack of support from the NRA.

In September 2010, the NRA backed a civil case arguing the Federal law banning eighteen year olds from purchasing a handgun from a licensed dealer was unconstitutional. The case, NRA, Inc. et al v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives originated in Texas.[13] The NRA challenged the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1), as violating the Second Amendment and the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted defendant federal agencies’ summary judgment. Of course, the NRA appealed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court. It held, “Burdening the ability of 18-to-20-year-olds to purchase handguns from federal firearms licensees was consistent with a longstanding, historical tradition, suggesting the Second Amendment was not implicated. Even if it was, the ban only prohibited commercial handgun sales to a discrete category, so intermediate scrutiny applied. Congress was focused on a particular problem: young persons under 21, who were immature and prone to violence, easily accessing handguns, which facilitated violent crime, primarily by way of licensed gun dealers. Curbing violent crime perpetrated by young persons under 21 — by preventing such persons from acquiring handguns from licensed dealers was an important government objective. Age was not a suspect classification triggering strict scrutiny on the equal protection claim, and the laws were rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”[14]

It has long been the law that age is not a suspect classification under the 14th Amendment’ equal protection clause. States may discriminate based on age without violating the 14th Amendment if the classification is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.[15]

Cognitive Dysfunction

The proponents of giving persons under the age of twenty-one the right to buy or possess a handgun do not accept widely held studies of human brain development.

  1. The developing brains of adolescents and young adults may put them at higher risk of making risky decisions. Hormonal changes can have significant effects on self-control, decision-making, emotions, risk-taking behaviors, and aggressive impulses.[16]
  2. The biological processes that take place during late adolescence and young adulthood can predispose individuals to riskier and more aggressive behaviors. A study of offenders incarcerated for crimes committed with firearms found that 17% of offenders would have been prohibited from buying a gun if their state had a law that raised the minimum age to possess a handgun to 21 years.[17]
  3. Data also suggests that young people disproportionately commit gun homicides. For example, 18-20-year olds comprise just 4% of the US population, but account for 17% of known homicide offenders.[18]
  4. Suicide risk is often much higher in the early stages of the onset of major psychiatric conditions, and these symptoms usually first develop in adolescence or early adulthood.
  5. Suicide attempts that result in death or hospital treatment peak at age 16, but are at the highest rates from age 14 through age 21.[19]
  6. Gun access can significantly increase these risks. The association between firearm availability and suicide is strongest among adolescents and young adults.[20]

School Shootings & Student Mental Health

There are but a handful of reported mass or multiple school shootings during the first three decades of the 20th Century.[21] What might account for that? Guns. Absent guns, schools are they should be—safe havens for adolescent and teenaged students.

The nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties brought us many more cases. Historically the two most notable U.S. school shootings in the early 1970s were the Jackson State killings in May 1970, where police opened fire on the campus of Jackson State University and the Kent State shootings also in May 1970 where the National Guard opened fire on the campus of Kent State University.[22] By the turn of the last century, the mid to late 1970s is considered the second most violent period in U.S. school history with a series of school shootings. The following cases stand out.[23]

  1. December 30, 1974 Olean, New York, Anthony Barbaro, a 17-year-old Regents scholar armed with a rifle and shotgun, kills three adults and wounds 11 others at his high school, which was closed for the Christmas holiday. Barbaro was reportedly a loner who kept a diary describing several “battle plans” for his attack on the school.
  2. June 12, 1976 California State University, Fullerton massacre, where the school’s custodian opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle in the library on the California State University, Fullerton campus killing 7, and wounding.
  3. February 22, 1978 Lansing, Michigan After being taunted for his beliefs, a 15-year-old self-proclaimed Nazi, kills one student and wounds a second with a Luger pistol.
  4. January 29, 1979 Grover Cleveland Elementary School Shootings, California, where a sixteen year-old girl opened fire with the rifle, a gift from her father, killing two and wounding a second with a Luger pistol.

Sentencing Teenage Shooters

What should be done with children who shoot to death other children at school? Is murder of a child by a child different from adults killing one another? “How to punish any underage killer is a point of constant debate. One that the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on three times since 2005 — banning juveniles from being sentenced to the death penalty, banning juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole for crimes in which a homicide was not committed and banning juveniles from facing mandatory sentences of life without parole under any circumstances. According to the nonprofit Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, at least 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate that young convicts receive a chance for parole, regardless of their crime.”[24]

Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C. ban or have no one serving live without parole for children.[25] Not surprisingly, all thirty-one lean moderate or progressive. Conservative states have many forms of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18.[26] Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted adolescent brain science, banned the use of capital punishment for juveniles, limited life without parole sentences to homicide offenses, and banned the use of mandatory life without parole. These decisions apply retroactively.[27]

The public policy question is whether adult punishment for juvenile defendants reduces crime. A 2006 report offers some insight. “The juvenile justice system was created over one hundred years ago to save young people from the savagery of the criminal courts and prisons, by removing juveniles from the criminogenic influences of the criminal justice system while providing rehabilitative Interventions. It appears that the founders of the juvenile court largely got it right. The available evidence, while not definitive, strongly suggests that transferring juveniles to the criminal court increases the recidivism rate. Moreover, although transfer has produced the intended effect of imposing lengthier sentences on serious juvenile offenders, the psychological literature on punishment suggests that shorter sentences may actually be experienced as more punitive (and thus, be a greater deterrent) than longer sentences. Policymakers must weigh the relatively short-term benefits of incapacitation resulting from transfer and imprisonment, against the long-term costs of criminal justice system processing in terms of increased recidivism, which in turn, would contribute to increased crime rates. If, however, transfer laws deter juvenile crime, then some of these offenders would not have offended in the first place. But based on current theorizing and the limited empirical research available, the weight of the evidence suggests that transfer laws, at least as currently implemented; likely have minimal general deterrent effects . . . As recently acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons (2005), which held that the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional, the limited life experience and psychosocial and brain immaturity of juveniles—particularly of juvenile offenders lessens their culpability. Punishment that is proportional to the offender’s culpability is at the heart of the criminal justice system.”[28]


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1)

[2] 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1)

[3] https://www.abqjournal.com/2419323/police-responding-to-reported-shooting-at-middle-school.html

[4] https://washington.aps.edu/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.abqjournal.com/2419323/police-responding-to-reported-shooting-at-middle-school.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2021-08-18/new-mexico-school-shooting-suspect-to-remain-in-custody

[10] https://meaww.com/who-victim-washington-middle-school-albuquerque-school-shooting

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/who-can-have-a-gun/minimum-age/#footnote_13_5627

[13] United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. October 25, 2012. Docket # 11-10959. 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 26949. NRA, Inc. v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

[14] Ibid at pages 48 to 54.

[15] Donahue v. City of Boston, 371 F.3d 7 (2004);

[16] Mariam Arain, et al., “Maturation of the Adolescent Brain,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 9 (2013); Allan Siegel and Jeff Victoroff, “Understanding Human Aggression: New Insights from Neuroscience.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32, no. 4 (2009): 210–211.

[17] Katherine A. Vittes, Jon S. Vernick, and Daniel W. Webster, “Legal Status and Source of Offenders’ Firearms in States with the Least Stringent Criteria for Gun Ownership,” Injury Prevention 19, no. 1 (2013).

[18] Merete Nordentoft, Preben Bo Mortensen, and Carsten Bøcker Pedersen, “Absolute Risk of Suicide after First Hospital Contact in Mental Disorder,” Archives of General Psychiatry 68, no. 10 (2011); Ronald C. Kessler, et al., “Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 6 (2005).

[19] Ibid.

[20] See Johanna Birckmayer and David Hemenway, “Suicide and Firearm Prevalence: are Youth Disproportionately Affected?” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 31, no. 3 (2001); Matthew Miller and David Hemenway, “The Relationship between Firearms and Suicide: a Review of the Literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 4, no. 1 (1999).

[21] https://www.k12academics.com/school-shootings/history-school-shootings-united-states

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/should-teen-school-shooters-spend-the-rest-of-their-lives-in-prison/2019/11/23/b96cc6f8-0baf-11ea-8397-a955cd542d00_story.html

[25] https://cfsy.org/states-that-ban-life-without-parole-lwop-sentences-for-children/

[26] https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/juvenile-life-without-parole/

[27] https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/juvenile-life-without-parole/

[28] Richard E. Redding, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law Year, 2006
Adult Punishment for Juvenile Offenders: Does It Reduce Crime?

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