Mother of 6-year-old who shot teacher pleads guilty to using marijuana while having a firearm

Signs stand outside Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va., Jan. 25, 2023. The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher at the Virginia school is expected to plead guilty in federal court Monday, June 12, 2023, to using marijuana while possessing a firearm, which is illegal under U.S. law. (AP Photo/Denise Lavoie, File)

By Associated Press

June 18, 2023

By BEN FINLEY and DENISE LAVOIE Associated Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to using marijuana while possessing a firearm, which is illegal under U.S. law.

The federal crime is facing increasing scrutiny as more states legalize the drug. But federal prosecutors in Virginia said Monday that such laws protect communities.

Deja Taylor is accused of lying about her marijuana use on a form when she bought the gun, which her son later used to shoot Abby Zwerner in her classroom in Newport News. The first-grade teacher was seriously wounded and has endured multiple surgeries.

Taylor’s attorneys agreed to a negotiated plea agreement with prosecutors that calls for a sentence of 18 months to 24 months in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 18.

Attorney Gene Rossi described the shooting as “a perfect storm of horrible consequences” in which a “brave courageous teacher almost lost her life.”

“Miss Taylor’s role in this tragedy is a complete accident and a complete mistake,” he said. “She takes full responsibility for her son’s actions and will feel guilt for the rest of her life.”

The federal case against Taylor is separate from the charges she faces on the state level: felony child neglect and reckless storage of a firearm. A trial for those counts is set for August.

Both cases are among the repercussions that followed the January shooting, which shook the city of Newport Newsnear the Atlantic Coast.

The federal charges against Taylor, 25, appear to be relatively rare. And the case comes at a time when marijuana is legal in many U.S. states, including Virginia.

Marijuana is still a controlled substance under U.S. law. And federal law generally prohibits people from possessing firearms if they’ve been convicted of a felony, been committed to a mental institution or are an unlawful user of a controlled substance, among other things.

In the days after the 6-year-old shot his teacher, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives searched Taylor’s home and found marijuana, federal prosecutors said in a statement Monday. Agents also searched Taylor’s mother’s house, where Taylor was staying, and found about 24.5 grams of marijuana.

“A search of Taylor’s phone revealed numerous text messages illustrating the pervasive scope of Taylor’s marijuana use,” prosecutors said.

When Taylor was pulled over by local police in 2021, they found “several marijuana edibles that looked like rice treats” next to her son, prosecutors said. Taylor denied all knowledge of drugs inside the vehicle.

When Taylor bought the 9mm handgun in 2022, Taylor falsely claimed on a background check form that she didn’t use marijuana.

U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber said in a statement Monday that federal gun ownership laws “exist to protect owners, their family members and the communities where they live.”

“Failing to abide by those requirements … can have far-reaching consequences,” Aber said.

In recent years, there’s been debate over the use of resources to aggressively pursue people who give false information on background check forms.

In 2018, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that authorities prosecute “a small percentage of individuals” who falsify information on a form and are denied a purchase.

The race of those who are prosecuted is another concern, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project.

In fiscal year 2021, 56% of the roughly 7,500 people convicted of breaking the law were Black, O’Keefe said, citing statistics from the United States Sentencing Commission. She did not have a breakdown for convictions related to marijuana or other drug use.

“About 18% of Americans admitted to using cannabis in the last year and about 40% owned guns,” O’Keefe added. “And so there’s an enormous pool of people that are presumably breaking this law every day and face up to 15 years in prison if they were caught.”

Federal judges in Oklahoma and Texas recently ruled that the federal gun ban on cannabis users is unconstitutional. They rolled back the requirement in parts of those states.

Both judges cited a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that set new standards for interpreting the Second Amendment.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have introduced legislation to end the prohibition.

A bill proposed by Republican U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia would allow medical marijuana users to have firearms. Legislation introduced by Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida would go even further, ending the ban in states that permit medical and recreational use.

“No one should be forced to choose between their rights: you have a right to bear arms, and in many states, you have a right to use cannabis,” Mast said in a statement in April.

The shooting in Newport News occurred Jan. 6, when Zwerner was shot in the hand and chest as she sat at a reading table. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and later told NBC she sometimes “ can’t get up out of bed.”

Zwerner is suing the school system for $40 million.

The attorney for Taylor in the state case, James Ellenson, has said Taylor believed her gun was secured on a high closet shelf with a trigger lock before the shooting occurred. He said last month it was still unclear how the boy got the gun.

Regarding the searches of Taylor’s home and her mother’s home, federal prosecutors said Monday: “A lockbox was not found in either of the residences, nor was a trigger lock or key to a trigger lock ever found.”

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