'There's a gun': When kids take weapons to school, parents face few consequences

Guns in schools:

Rising threats, growing fear| 2 kids, 2 police calls| Why kids make threats | Unsecured and lethal

"There's a gun," a sixth-grader told his math teacher at a Scottsdale middle school, according to police reports.

The teacher saw that a firearm had fallen between two desks in his classroom at Mountainside Middle School. His immediate response was to move his students away from the green 9mm handgun.

His second response was to call for help. The teacher called the school resource officer’s desk line. No answer. The teacher then called the assistant principal. No answer.

His third call was to the registrar at the front office, who picked up. According to police reports for the Jan. 25 incident, Officer Michael Yavello was alerted and ran to the classroom, where he saw the sixth-graders backed up against the walls.

“Several students were crying hysterically and appeared to be terrified,” Yavello wrote in his own report.

Mindful of the students’ proximity to the gun, which he found between two desks in the back row of the classroom, Yavello reported he wanted to secure the weapon as quickly as possible.

He released the magazine, which contained several rounds of live ammunition, before he called for police backup. Mountainside Middle School was placed on lockdown as a precaution.

After interviewing each student in the teacher’s fourth period math class, identifying the registered owner of the firearm and matching his address to one listed for a student, investigators identified their suspect: An 11-year-old had taken the green Desert Eagle 9mm handgun that belonged to his uncle and brought it to school.

The boy was arrested on several weapons charges and disorderly conduct after tearfully insisting to police he accidentally brought the gun to school that Wednesday.

The gun had been missing from his uncle’s possession since the Friday before, and he had notified his family to look for it. The boy's mother had forgotten to check his backpack, according to police reports. No adults were arrested in connection with the gun incident.

In August 2022, a 9-year-old boy brought a gun and loaded magazine with him to class, keeping his Chromebook and the gun stashed in his blue Jansport backpack at Legacy Traditional School in Queen Creek.

He later told authorities he brought the gun because he feared being harmed during his commute. His parents had opted to let the boy ride his scooter to the school where he was newly enrolled.

While he never took the weapon out, he did show another child a bullet the day before. The other child reported the bullet to his teacher and his mother, prompting the school principal to investigate the next day and search the 9-year-old’s backpack.

School staff discovered the 9mm Springfield Armory XD handgun with an attached, loaded magazine in the backpack, and Queen Creek police officers were called to the school.

A police report noted that the boy had used a ladder to access the gun from a drawer in his parents' bedroom.

As authorities investigated, the boy cried so hard he struggled to breathe. Meanwhile, other parents gathered at the front office wanting to unenroll their children from the school.

Police initially had recommended charges against the parents, but the Pinal County Attorney’s Office later said charges would not be filed against them.

The explanation: No reasonable likelihood of conviction.

Because the state lacks laws meant to inhibit a minor's access to firearms, Arizona parents are rarely charged.

Arizona children face the brunt of consequences after they gain inappropriate access to guns that adults should be handling more responsibly.

While charges ultimately were dropped against the 9-year-old boy, an assistant principal told police he likely would face expulsion after his 10-day school suspension.

The cases of these boys bringing firearms to school are just two out of dozens of close calls in Arizona in recent years.

Kids often get access to firearms via their families, according to an Arizona Republic investigation into guns at school. It's a pattern that tracks with federal research findings, including a 2019 U.S. Secret Service report that found half of school attackers obtained firearms from their guardians.

But with no safe storage laws and lax requirements for private sales, there are few guardrails for adults.

Guns in schools: Arizona's K-12 schools and police face flood of gun threats, lockdowns, guns

The Republic filed public records requests to all existing Arizona police departments asking for calls for service on gun threats in K-12 schools. The request sought a catalog of incidents for almost four years ― from Jan. 1, 2019, through the date of the records request submission in October or November 2022.

It wasn't until April 4, 2024, that The Republic obtained responses from all agencies and was able to analyze police records from more than 70 police departments.

Many directly involved family members:

  • Two boys attending Cactus Middle School in Casa Grande in April 2019 faced firearm possession charges on suspicion they had passed a gun to each other on campus. One of the boys said he was directed to grab the gun from his mom’s room, according to the police report.

  • In December 2019, a boy attending school in Glendale was caught with a Black Jimenez Model JA-Nine 9mm semiautomatic handgun in his waistband. He told authorities he took it from his uncle's room.

  • In October 2021, a Flagstaff boy brought his grandfather’s loaded handgun to Mount Elden Middle School in response to bullying. His grandmother told police she found him with the gun a week before and thought she had hidden it from him.

  • In October 2021, a 15-year-old boy in Apache Junction was arrested on suspicion of gun possession after grabbing the weapon from his mom’s car at a football game. The teen’s mother told police that she had forgotten the gun was in the car parked at Apache Junction High School, according to the report.

  • In October 2022, a 17-year-old was charged after his truck was found in the student parking lot with a visible .410 Rossi rifle at Apache Junction High School. The boy said the gun was passed down from his grandfather and he’d forgotten it was in the car.

In total, The Republic found 96 incidents involving a K-12 student bringing a firearm onto school property from January 2019 to 2022.

The Republic investigation showed an increase in firearms brought to schools, but bills aimed to reduce access to guns by minors in Arizona appear to be going nowhere in the current legislative session.

Private gun sales are largely unregulated, though sales to minors are banned

Phoenix police say that a private firearm sale negotiated over social media allowed a 15-year-old to purchase AR-15 components that he brought to Bostrom High School in Phoenix in May 2023.

Arizona requires buyers to be at least 18 years old to purchase a gun in a private sale and at least 21 years old to purchase a gun from a dealer with a federal license.

The state does not require background checks or permits to purchase a firearm from a private dealer.

With the lack of oversight on private firearm sales, dealers may not adhere to age requirements.

No state law mandates a private seller to verify a buyer’s date of birth.

Sales do not need to be reported to a government agency, nor does a firearm need to be registered, which could pose challenges in tracing where and how a minor obtained a gun.

Gaps in the law make it difficult for prosecutors to go after those who illegally sell to minors.

Asked if sellers still could face charges if they deny knowledge that a buyer was underage, Richie Taylor, a spokesperson for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, stated the office “cannot speculate or comment on hypotheticals.”

Former state Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, introduced House Bill 2240 this session to place requirements for tracking, verification and background checks and other limitations on private sales.

Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley, introduced HB 2819, which would close a loophole that otherwise allows minors to have a gun in their home without parental knowledge or consent.

Nguyen's bill hasn't progressed since securing a majority caucus vote Feb. 20. The bill's critics argue that if passed, it could absolve parents of liability if their child were to use a firearm while committing a crime.

Proposed gun storage laws go nowhere in Arizona

In the incident reports analyzed by The Republic, students who brought a firearm to school either obtained it in an illegal private sale or because someone had not secured a weapon at home.

Prosecutors have limited recourse in pursuing charges against firearm owners when minors have access to unsecured weapons.

Arizona does not have a child access prevention law that imposes a penalty on someone who leaves an unattended firearm accessible to an unsupervised minor. The state also has no laws related to how guns should be stored, although unsuccessful attempts to pass bills have been made in prior legislative sessions.

Claire and Bruce Petillo lost their 15-year-old son Christian to gun violence in 2021.
Claire and Bruce Petillo lost their 15-year-old son Christian to gun violence in 2021.

In January 2023, two Gilbert parents backed a gun storage law after their son was fatally shot in 2021. Bruce and Claire Petillo’s 15-year-old son Christian had been at a friend’s house with a group of 14- and 15-year-old boys, where a firearm was not locked up. The firearm went off and shot Christian in the chest.

“A part of me died that day,” Bruce Petillo said in an interview with The Republic.

The Petillos worked with Longdon to introduce the bill last year. The bill failed when Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, House Judiciary Committee chairman, would not give the bill a hearing.

“My wife and I got a reality check — the fact that there were members of our statehouse that refused to even talk to us about it. They wouldn’t even hear the bill,” Bruce Petillo said.

Dr. Jesenia Pizarro, a criminology professor at Arizona State University, doesn’t believe the state will see a safe storage law passed in the near future.

“Some people would say that (safe storage laws) infringe on Second Amendment rights,” Pizarro said. “If the gun is locked and not accessible to you immediately, it hinders the probability of you protecting yourself if someone breaks into your house, for example.”

Pizarro argues that safe storage laws reduce suicide rates, accidental firearm injuries and death, and unsupervised juvenile access to guns.

“Hopefully, one day, it will be heard on the floor,” Pizarro said.

“Christian’s Law,” as the safe storage bill has been dubbed, was reintroduced by Longdon, before her resignation on Jan. 26, as HB 2233. It was sponsored by Democratic Reps. Jennifer Pawlik and Judy Schwiebert.

The proposal would require gun owners to do one of the following in their home:

  • Keep their firearm in a storage device.

  • Equip their firearm with a device that renders it inoperable without a key or combination.

  • Keep the firearm close enough to them to be able to readily retrieve it.

Anyone in violation of Christian’s Law would not face criminal charges. Instead, they would be fined a civil penalty of $1,000.

The bill was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which holds a 5-3 Republican majority. It has not been heard in the current session.

Nguyen now chairs the committee. Nguyen did not respond to The Republic's multiple requests for comment.

Pawlik told The Republic that she and Schwiebert were disappointed that neither Christian's Law nor HB 2240 had been scheduled for a hearing, which typically means it won't be discussed or voted on this session.

"It's not about trying to take anyone's guns away," Pawlik said. "It's about responsible gun ownership."

One Phoenix school district board is now calling on lawmakers to take action after a student was found April 1 with a firearm on a school bus headed to Madison Rose Lane Elementary School.

The Madison Elementary School District's governing board unanimously passed a resolution outlining a plan to educate parents on securely storing guns and called on the state Legislature and governor to approve safe storage requirements.

What could a safe storage law mean for Arizonans?

A recent school shooting case brought the issue of parental accountability to light nationally. A Michigan jury on Feb. 6 convicted a school shooter’s mother of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the killings of four students in 2021.

The conviction makes Jennifer Crumbley the first parent in the U.S. to be held responsible for a child carrying out a mass school attack. Her husband, James Crumbley, was convicted of a similar charge March 14.

Prosecutors said the parents had a duty under state law to prevent their son, who was 15 at the time, from harming others. They were accused of failing to secure the gun and ammunition at home and failing to get help to support Ethan Crumbley’s mental health.

Michigan did not have a child access prevention law at the time of the shooting. A new Michigan law went into effect Feb. 13 requiring gun owners to keep their firearms unloaded and locked in the home if a minor is present.

Child access prevention and safe storage laws are effective at reducing deliberate and unintentional self-inflicted firearm injuries, according to a 2023 Arizona Public Health Association report on gun violence.

In Winslow: How an Arizona school's response to a perceived gun threat upended a 12-year-old's life

The National Bureau of Economic Research found in a 2019 study that child access prevention laws, when enacted, are associated with a 19% reduction in firearm-related homicides among 12- to 17-year-olds.

The RAND Corporation, an American research institute, states the single law change that could have the greatest effect on national firearm death rates is the adoption of child-access prevention laws by states that have not yet done so — like Arizona.

“A fundamental thing we have to look at is how does a young child have immediate, unfettered access to a firearm,” said Dr. Gene Deisinger, a former law enforcement officer and licensed psychologist who specializes in behavioral threat assessment.

“We have to encourage people to take responsibility for those firearms. There’s a lack of supervision, lack of oversight, lack of proper education and respect for what those weapons can do.”

Bruce Petillo said, “Every piece of data tells us it’s going to happen again and again and again. Until we make a different choice. Until gun owners are held accountable for the weapons that they own … we’re still going to see these kinds of incidents.”

When kids are hurting, it's key to act: How to spot students who may be trending toward violence

‘He lost his voice’: Parents advocate for gun safety

The Pinal County Attorney's Office announced in November the felony charge against the 9-year-old in the Queen Creek charter school incident would be dropped. The boy and his parents completed a gun safety course and the case was dismissed.

The case against the 15-year-old accused of bringing AR-15 components to Bostrom High School is still active in the justice system, and the incident renewed urgency to boost security within Phoenix Union schools.

No charges were filed against the boy who accidentally killed Christian Petillo, nor the boy’s parents.

Claire and Bruce Petillo plan to continue pushing safe storage laws in Arizona and nationally. As of 2024, 26 states have adopted child access prevention or secure storage laws.
Claire and Bruce Petillo plan to continue pushing safe storage laws in Arizona and nationally. As of 2024, 26 states have adopted child access prevention or secure storage laws.

Bruce and Claire Petillo say they harbor no ill will and want to focus on preventing the tragedy from repeating itself with other families. Christian’s parents plan to continue pushing safe storage laws in Arizona and nationally. As of 2024, 26 states have adopted child access prevention or secure storage laws.

On a federal level, Ethan’s Law, or Senate Bill 173, proposes to establish statutory requirements for safe storage to prevent a minor from gaining access to a firearm.

The Petillos also serve as advisers for Newtown Action Alliance, an organization that advocates for policies on preventing gun violence. It was founded after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six educators.

“This will probably be something we do for the rest of our lives,” Bruce Petillo said. “He (Christian) will forever be 15.”

A memorial with photographs of Christian Petillo is displayed inside the Petillo family's home in Gilbert. Christian,15, was accidentally shot by a friend who had gotten hold of an unsecured firearm in his home in 2021. “This will probably be something we do (pushing for gun safety laws) for the rest of our lives,” his father, Bruce Petillo, says. “He (Christian) will forever be 15.”

His loved ones never will get to know what his future would have held, Bruce Petillo said. Christian would have turned 18 in March and would be graduating from high school this year. He loved golf, baseball and wanted to work on cars.

His mother described him as empathetic, with a “huge heart” and infectious smile.

“He loved mentoring little kids, really enjoyed talking to adults,” Claire Petillo said, adding that it was hard for Christian to connect with kids his own age.

“He had a very kind and empathetic soul …” Bruce Petillo said. “He lost his voice in this. Now, we are his voice.”

Free mental health resources are available to anyone in Arizona. A statewide mental health crisis line is available at 844-534-HOPE (4673). Another resource for 24/7 help is to dial 988, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

Teen Lifeline is for kids to call and get free, confidential and anonymous help from trained peers at 602-248-8336 (TEEN) or 800-248-8336 (TEEN) outside of Maricopa County.

Have you been impacted by gun violence or gun policy? Reach breaking news editor and reporter L. M. Boyd at LMBoyd@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on X at @lillianmboyd1.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Guns at school: Why Arizona adults aren't charged when trouble occurs