CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — Police in Newport News, Virginia say a six-year-old acted intentionally when he used his mother’s handgun to shoot his first-grade teacher in the middle of class.

When it comes to criminal intent, Barbara Fedders, the Director of UNC School of Law’s Youth Justice Clinic, says children that young simply don’t have the mental capacity to understand right from wrong.

“Children of that age barely know right from wrong; some of them still believe in Santa and the tooth fairy, and so it doesn’t make sense to think that they can form criminal intent or understand the legal system enough to participate in it,” she explained. “You have to understand the charges that are being brought against you and assist in your own defense, and here we’re talking about people whose feet wouldn’t touch the ground sitting at council tables.”

Fedders also said children at that age are too young to go to trial.

Different states have different minimum ages for jurisdiction in the juvenile court system. The state of North Carolina recently raised the age to 10-years-old in most cases, but when serious felonies are suspected an eight or nine-year-old can be prosecuted in juvenile court. 

Police say the gun in this case was purchased legally. It’s not clear how it was stored, but police have said it’s possible the parents could be charged.

If something like this happened here in North Carolina, Fedders explained what would happen in a similar scenario.

“It would be hard to prove them guilty under the criminal statute, and even if you did it’s a misdemeanor offense,” she explained.

Dr. Brian Eichner, a pediatrician with Duke Children’s Primary Care, was saddened, but not surprised to hear about the six-year-old shooting his teacher.

“This sounds terrible,” he said, “But, it actually is surprising that things like this don’t happen more often than they do.”

He says gun violence is a public health crisis, and it’s far too easy for children to get their hands on loaded guns. That’s why his office offers free gun locks to any family that comes in for an appointment.

Eichner also urges every family to keep guns — whether at home or in the car — locked up and unloaded, with the ammunition in a separate place.

For tips on gun safety, he suggests parents visit this website.