Over the past several weeks, it seems as if everyone in the state of Texas has been mourning the recent tragedy that occurred at Santa Fe High School in the southeast Texas town of Santa Fe., about 30 miles outside Houston. Authorities are investigating the incident, which took the lives of 10 students: Jared Black, Shana Fisher, Christian Riley Garcia, Aaron Kyle McLeod, Glenda Perkins, Angelique Ramirez, Sabika Sheikh, Christopher Jake Stone, Cynthia Tisdale, and Kimberly Vaughn. The shooter was 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who shot them dead and injured 13 others with his father’s .38 revolver and shotgun.
Who is Ultimately Responsible When a Child Shoots?
While everyone is mourning the deaths caused by this terrible tragedy, the shooting brings up several legal issues, not the least of which is, are the parents responsible when a minor accesses their guns and commits an unspeakable horror? The answer isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Texas does have a law in place, called the Safe Storage Law, that holds responsible parents, guardians or other adults liable when a child under 17 accesses their guns. Since the shooter in this case was 17, it would seem not to apply in this case. That said, the parents of Christopher Jake Stone disagree with that contention, and they have filed a lawsuit against the parents of the shooter, claiming negligence and wrongful death. The basic premise for the lawsuit comes with a statement in the petition saying, “Had the Murderer not had available to him the weapons for his carnage, his hidden black rage might well have continued to simmer within, but, the life’s blood of his teacher and peers, including (Christopher Jake Stone), would not have been so horribly, callously and needlessly spilled…” They also deans that the shooter’s parents “be held fully accountable in compensable and exemplary damages for the dreadful and irredeemable losses their weapons directly and proximately caused.”
What Does Texas Law Say About Liability?
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court. Success or failure may hinge on how strictly the court holds to the “under 17” provision. According to Section 46.13 of the Texas Penal Code (which can be found here), if a child “under 17 years of age” gains access to a readily dischargeable firearm, meaning it was loaded with ammunition, the adult owner of the firearm is criminally liable if they are found to be “criminally negligent.” The law spells out ways in which gun owners can be considered “criminally negligent,” including:
- Failing to take steps a reasonable person would take to prevent access to a readily dischargeable firearm by a child. That can include placing the gun in a locked container or rendering the firearm temporarily inoperable, through the use of a trigger lock or other means;
- Leaving the firearm in a place where a reasonable person would know the child could or would gain access.
That said, however, a gun owner will not be considered criminally negligent if the child’s access to the firearm was:
- Supervised by an adult over 18 and was part of a lawful activity, like hunting or target shooting;
- Was used by the child in the lawful defense of people or property;
- Was gained by entering property through trespass;
- Was used as part of an agricultural enterprise.
The petition filed by Stone’s parents asserts the following negligent acts, which they claim were in violation of Texas law:
- Failure on the part of the shooter’s parents to properly secure their weapons;
- Permitting their son to have access to their weapons and ammunition;
- Failure to obtain mental health treatment, counseling and services for their son;
- Failure to properly warn the public of their son’s “dangerous propensities,” and;
- Negligently entrusting their weapons to their son.
In this particular case, the guns the shooter used in the fatal shootings had been stored in the parents’ closet.
What Should Parents Do To Keep Kids Safe?
The issue of parental liability for the acts of minors in such violent acts as school shootings have been an ongoing question for many years, as had the question of liability for the parents and guardians of children who allow children with potential mental health issues to have access to firearms. Many have argued that parents should be more vigilant when it comes to allowing anyone access to their firearms, but especially their children. Many experts in the field suggest that parents need to take a more active role in their teenage children’s lives, so they know what is going on in their lives and how they are dealing with it. Parents who discover a problem should also take a proactive role in making sure they are dealing with problems in a healthy way.
In the meantime, many argue that our society has to address the issue of school violence and do everything possible to keep children of all ages, safe at school. Texas law does create a level of liability on the part of parents for their child’s access to firearms, but with the Santa Fe school shooting, there are indications there may be more to do. The solution may actually be found in the civil court system and holding parents civilly liable when a a child dies due to possible negligence on their part. Christopher Jake Stone’s parents are seeking damages in excess of 1 million dollars; perhaps that is what will bring about some of the changes, rather than more laws.