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Mother of 6-year-old boy who shot teacher faces sentencing for marijuana use while owning a gun

By BEN FINLEY, Associated Press
Published: November 15, 2023, 8:37am

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday and could face prison time for using marijuana while owning a firearm, which is illegal under U.S. law.

Deja Taylor’s son took her handgun to school and shot Abby Zwerner in her first-grade classroom in January, seriously wounding the educator. Investigators later found nearly an ounce of marijuana in Taylor’s bedroom and evidence of frequent drug use in her text messages and paraphernalia.

The federal charges against Taylor come at a time when marijuana is legal in many states, including Virginia, while many Americans own firearms.

Some U.S. courts in other parts of the country have ruled against the federal law that bans drug users from having guns. But the law remains in effect in many states and has been used to charge others including Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia argued in court filings that Taylor’s “chronic, persistent and … life-affecting abuse extends this case far beyond any occasional and/or recreational use.”

Prosecutors said they will seek a 21-month prison sentence.

“This case is not a marijuana case,” they wrote. “It is a case that underscores the inherently dangerous nature and circumstances that arise from the caustic cocktail of mixing consistent and prolonged controlled substance use with a lethal firearm.”

Taylor agreed in June to a negotiated guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Newport News in the state’s southeast coastal region. She has been convicted of using marijuana while owning a gun as well as lying about her drug use on a federal form when she bought the gun.

Taylor’s attorneys said they will ask for probation and home confinement, according to court filings. They argued Taylor needs counseling for issues that include schizoaffective disorder, a condition that shares symptoms with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“Ms. Taylor is deeply saddened, extremely despondent, and completely remorseful for the unintended consequences and mistakes that led to this horrible shooting,” her attorneys wrote.

They also said she needs treatment for marijuana addiction.

“Addiction is a disease and incarceration is not the cure,” her attorneys wrote.

Taylor’s attorneys also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could eventually strike down the federal ban on drug users owning guns. For example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in August that drug users should not automatically be banned from having guns.

Other lower courts have upheld the ban and the Justice Department has appealed the 5th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court. The high court has not yet decided whether to take up the case.

Federal law generally prohibits people from possessing firearms if they have been convicted of a felony, been committed to a mental institution or are an unlawful user of a controlled substance, among other things.

The United States Sentencing Commission reported that nearly 8,700 people were convicted under the law last year. The commission did not provide a detailed breakdown of how many were charged because of their drug use. But it said nearly 88% of them were convicted because of a prior felony conviction.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project, told The Associated Press in June that about 18% of Americans admitted to using cannabis in the last year and about 40% owned guns.

Taylor’s sentencing could offer the first measure of accountability for January’s shooting, which revived a national dialogue about gun violence and roiled the military shipbuilding city of Newport News.

Taylor, 26, still faces a separate sentencing in December on the state level for felony child neglect. And Zwerner is suing the school system for $40 million, alleging administrators ignored multiple warnings the boy had a gun.

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Immediately after the shooting, the child told a reading specialist who restrained him: “I shot that (expletive) dead,” and “I got my mom’s gun last night,” according to search warrants.

Taylor’s son told authorities he obtained the gun by climbing onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the firearm was in his mom’s purse. Taylor initially told investigators she had secured her gun with a trigger lock, but investigators never found one.

Taylor’s grandfather has had full custody of her son, now age 7, since the shooting, according to court documents.

It was not the first time Taylor’s gun was fired in public, prosecutors wrote. Taylor shot at her son’s father in December after seeing him with his girlfriend.

“u kouldve killed me,” the father said to Taylor in a text message, according to a brief from prosecutors.

Sometime after her son shot his teacher, Taylor smoked two blunts, prosecutors added. She also failed drug tests while awaiting sentencing on the federal charges.

Taylor’s attorneys said Taylor “vulnerably stands before this court humiliated, contrite and saddened.”

Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report.

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