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Kid’s Access to Gun May Support Assault Charge

(CN) - The boyfriend of a woman whose 9-year-old stole his handgun, took it to school and accidentally shot a classmate must face assault charges, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled.

On Feb. 22, 2012, a 9-year-old named in court records only as TC took a gun to Armin Jahr Elementary School in Bremerton, Wash., and nearly killed his 8-year-old classmate, Amina Kocer-Bowman.

The gunshot reportedly went through the Kocer-Bowman's right arm and into the right side of her abdomen, causing massive bleeding.

TC ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to probation and counseling.

His mother, Jamie Lee Chaffin, and her boyfriend, Douglas Bauer, were also reportedly charged with third-degree assault and unlawful possession of a firearm.

Chaffin, who also goes by the name Jamie Lee Passmore, pleaded guilty to the weapons charges in exchange for prosecutors dropping the assault charge and for testifying against Bauer.

The boyfriend moved to dismiss the charges under State v. Knapstad, a 1986 decision in Washington that relates to criminal cases involving clear evidence that the state cannot prove a necessary element of the crime.

Though the trial court dismissed the weapons charges against Bauer, it denied his Knapstad motion as well his claim that the assault statute is unconstitutionally vague.

A divided three-judge panel affirmed Friday.

The ruling gives a different version of events than those reported at the time of the shooting.

Though 2012 news reports said the gun had been tucked into TC's back pack and went off when he slammed that bag onto classroom desk, the appeals court said TC had accidentally pulled the trigger while reaching into his backpack.

The court said TC was not living with his mother at the time, but he told police that he occasionally visits with his siblings and often sleeps in a downstairs bedroom.

He said Bauer had left the handgun in that room the weekend before the shooting and that he took it while the rest of the family was downstairs, according to the ruling.

TC and his siblings also said there are multiple loaded guns throughout the house, "including a shotgun in the downstairs bedroom, a handgun on the downstairs dresser, a handgun on the computer desk, a handgun under the couch, and a handgun in the glove compartment of the car," the opinion states.

Writing for the majority, Judge Joel Penoyar said this evidence could reveal the "actual cause of AK-B's injuries," abbreviating Kocer-Bowman's name.

"The gun TC brought to school was registered to Bauer," Penoyar wrote. "TC explained that he took the gun from Bauer's house. The police searched the house and found multiple loaded guns in locations easily accessible to the children. TC's guardian stated that he did not allow guns in his home. Given these facts, reasonable minds could reach the conclusion that but for Bauer allegedly leaving loaded guns easily accessible to TC, TC would not have brought a gun to school and AK-B would not have been injured."

Ultimately, the court found that the case should go to a jury.

"We are told that this decision will open the floodgates to charges against innocent parents for the unanticipated criminal acts of their children where the parents' only fault was in failing to totally secure an item that could potentially be dangerous," Penoyar wrote. "We do not anticipate such a flood. But if a parent leaves a live hand grenade on the kitchen counter, they could be at risk of criminal prosecution. The reason why a hand grenade could lead to charges and a butcher knife will not is in the state of mind that must be proven that the parents' actions were at least a gross deviation from a normally careful person's conduct. Faced with this high burden, we do not anticipate that prosecutors will be filing charges for failing to secure normal household items such as knives, power tools, and the like."

In his dissent, Judge pro tempore Carroll Bridgewater said that "the facts fail to establish legal causation in the civil context."

"Consistent with Washington law and policy, I would decline to judicially impose a duty to secure firearms within one's home," Bridgewater wrote. "The imposition of such a duty would require a careful balancing of safety and civil liberty issues involving adults - such as the potential use of stolen firearms in crimes and the civil rights of adults to own and use firearms in defense of the home - as well as Washington laws demonstrating approval of minors possessing and using firearms within the home for lawful purposes, including self defense." (Italics in original.)

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