By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A 12-year-old boy armed with a shotgun opened fire at a middle school in New Mexico on Tuesday, seriously wounding two students before a staff member persuaded him to put down the firearm, authorities said.
The shooting at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell took place in a gym where students had gathered to stay warm from the frigid weather outside before the start of class, Governor Susana Martinez told reporters.
"The shooter was quickly stopped by one staff member who walked right up to him and asked him to set down the firearm, which he did," Martinez said.
The wounded students were taken to a local hospital, where they were stabilized. They were then flown by helicopter to University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, about 150 miles east of Roswell, because that facility has a Level 1 trauma center, said hospital spokesman Eric Finley.
The wounded children were an 11-year-old boy in critical condition and a 12-year-old girl in serious condition, and both underwent surgery for gunshot wounds, Finley said. Earlier reports had placed the boy as older, aged 12 or 14.
The shooting was the second to take place at a U.S. middle school in three months, after a 12-year-old boy opened fire at his middle school in Sparks, Nevada, in October, killing a teacher and wounding two students before killing himself.
It comes amid a contentious national debate on gun control that intensified after a gunman shot dead 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. Following that attack, President Barack Obama called for sweeping new gun control measures.
Most of Obama's proposals were defeated in Congress, but his administration proposed new regulations this month aimed at clarifying restrictions on gun ownership for the mentally ill and bolstering a database used for firearms background checks.
GUN CONCEALED IN BAG
A state police lieutenant who had been dropping off his own child at the New Mexico school helped in detaining the shooter, but by then the boy had already put down the gun, officials said. The boy's motive remains unclear, police said.
The school, which was placed on lockdown after the 7:30 a.m. shooting, serves students in grades six through eight, and officials said teachers had received training in how to react to a shooter.
The 12-year-old boy arrived with a shotgun concealed in a bag, said New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. He commended staff at the school for their quick response to the shooting.
"It's one thing for an armed state police officer to enter the school and do his or her job," Kassetas said. "It's another thing for a teacher, staff member to intervene in a situation like this."
A staff member at the school received "very minor injuries" and declined medical care, Martinez said. It was unclear if that was the same person who asked the boy to give up his shotgun or how the staff member was injured.
"I can stand here and tell you that in the 10 seconds that transpired from the time of this thing starting until the teacher had control of the weapon, there was no cowardice," said Roswell Independent School District Superintendent Tom Burris.
The wounded boy was shot in the face, students told the Albuquerque Journal. Sixth-grade student Anyssa Vegara told the paper she was talking to a security guard when she heard a shot.
"I turned around and all I saw was someone on the floor with their arm bleeding," Anyssa told the Journal.
Classes at Berrendo Middle School would be canceled on Wednesday and resume on Thursday, Burris said.
Roswell, a city of 48,000 people in southeastern New Mexico, is best known for its association with UFO lore because of the 1947 crash at a nearby site of an object UFO proponents believe was an alien ship. The U.S. military says materials recovered near the site were from an experimental surveillance craft.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco and Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman)