The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia is now facing federal charges that allege she used marijuana while also possessing a gun, which is illegal under U.S. law.
Deja Taylor, 25, is also accused of lying about her marijuana use on a federal background check form when she bought the 9 mm handgun. Her son used it in the shooting that seriously wounded first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner in the city of Newport News.
When Taylor bought the gun last year, federal authorities allege that she denied on the form that she used marijuana when she knew "she was an unlawful user,” court documents stated.
The new charges, filed in federal court Monday, are in addition to the criminal counts Taylor faces on the state level. Those charges allege felony child neglect and reckless storage of a firearm.
A trial for the state case is set for August. Taylor is scheduled to plead guilty to the federal charges on Monday.
She faces up to six years in prison if she is convicted on the state charges. The federal case carries up to 25 years, although her lead attorney said sentencing guidelines call for 18 months to 24 months in prison.
“This is a Shakespearean tragedy,” attorney Gene Rossi of the firm Carlton Fields said in a statement. “A perfect storm that has had horrible consequences.”
The federal case against Taylor comes at a time of growing conflict between the federal government and states where marijuana use is legal. There has also been debate in recent years over the use of limited federal resources to aggressively pursue people who give false information on background check forms.
The race of the people who are prosecuted is another concern, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project.
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.
In fiscal year 2021, 56% of the roughly 7,500 people convicted of breaking that law were Black, O'Keefe said, citing statistics from the United States Sentencing Commission. She did not have a breakdown for convictions related to marijuana or other drug use.
“About 18% of Americans admitted to using cannabis in the last year and about 40% owned guns,” O'Keefe said. “And so there’s an enormous pool of people that are presumably breaking this law every day and face up to 15 years in prison if they were caught.”
Court documents do not detail exactly how federal investigators built their firearms case against Taylor, who is Black. But she came under intense scrutiny after her son used her gun to shoot Zwerner in January.
Zwerner was shot in the hand and chest as she sat at a reading table in her first-grade classroom at Richneck Elementary. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, has had four surgeries and later told NBC she sometimes “ can’t get up out of bed.”
Zwerner is suing the school system for $40 million.
The attorney for Taylor in the state case, James Ellenson, has said Taylor believed her gun was secured on a high closet shelf with a trigger lock before the shooting occurred. He said last month that it's still unclear how the boy got the gun.
“People have talked to him about that, but I don’t know that any adult knows exactly how he got the gun,” Ellenson told ABC’s “Good Morning America" May 10.
Ellenson, who is working with Rossi on the federal case, said in a statement that they intend to present mitigating evidence when Taylor is sentenced later this year. He did not elaborate.
Ellenson said the shooting “was a tragedy for all parties, most especially teacher Abby Zwerner for whom we wish a complete recovery.”