Judges in family law often face heated disputes between divorcing parents over issues such as visitation, getting kids to school or providing rides to soccer practice.
Try adding a shotgun to the fray.
Last week, Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza affirmed two previous decisions requiring a Spokane man to wait until his 9-year-old son turns 12 and completes a hunter safety course before he can give him access to a shotgun.
The boy’s mother, Laura Visvydas, said in court records that she first learned that her the boy’s father, Sean B. Fawcett, gave him the gun when the boy returned home with a bruised shoulder.
“Not only has Sean provided our 9-year-old son a shotgun, but he has allowed him to take it out and shoot it,” Visvydas wrote in court records. “Guns are unquestionably dangerous.”
She also wrote that the father is virtually deaf.
“Sean would be unable to hear if (the son) were accessing a firearm,” she wrote. “Further, 9 years old is just too young to own a shotgun. No matter how mature or how much safety training (the son) receives, he is too young for such a large gun, or any gun for that matter.”
Fawcett’s attorney, Dennis Cronin, said in a March 13 hearing that the firearm issue was not why they were in court. But he provided a defense anyway.
“I think we can all recognize in different states throughout this nation, there are children this age and younger who are brought up with firearms with no problem,” Cronin said, according to a court transcript. “Skiing downhill at Schweitzer (for) a child this age is inherently dangerous. We don’t have people coming in here asking for restraints on that.”
The legal issue isn’t clear, said Brent Ferguson, chief firearms instructor for the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. Washington state imposes no age limit for hunting or access to firearms.
“As far as I’m concerned, the younger they are allowed to handle firearms the better. I started my own boys at 5 or 6,” Ferguson said. “But they were 10 before I let them go through hunter education. I try to discourage people bringing children ages 9, 8 or 7 from going through the course. The reason is they don’t understand how dangerous it is to handle a firearm and the responsibility behind it.
“And the other reason is, they are not physically strong enough to handle the firearm and keep good muzzle control,” he said.
As far as supervising a 9-year-old with a shotgun, Ferguson said he supports “starting young with a good experienced adult.”
Cronin, Fawcett’s lawyer, said he had a declaration from a firearms instructor indicating that 9-year-olds could safely handle firearms. The boy also went through a rifle safety program and obtained a certificate March 1.
“You don’t see people coming in saying (the) child can’t go swimming in the lake at 9 because he might drown,” Cronin said in the court minutes. “Essentially what they are saying, with no facts, (is) ‘restrain him from letting his father teach him to be around and supervise his use of a firearm because he might get hurt.’ Show me the facts beyond speculation and this opinion of fear.”
According to the court record, David Crouse, the attorney representing Visvydas, said he’s a hunter and “pro-firearms.” But “I wouldn’t give a 9-year-old a BB gun, let alone allow them to possess, handle, fire a shotgun or a rifle,” he said.
“You could go down to the next gun show and get a hundred people to sign saying (at) 4 years old they should be able to fire semiautomatic rifles. I guarantee it. But that doesn’t mean that anyone would do such a thing.”
Superior Court Commissioner Michelle Ressa said in the first ruling in the matter that she believed she had the authority to issue a temporary restraining order against Fawcett giving his son access to the shotgun.
“Is this a child that can handle this kind of weapon? Is this a parent that can supervise and provide the right kind of supervision? I know he (Fawcett) says he has 28 years of experience. He has a hunting license,” she continued. “But it doesn’t, for me, take away the potential of irreparable harm that could occur with a 9-year-old child handling a shotgun.”
She granted the temporary restraining order.
In a later hearing, on March 31, Commissioner Joseph Valente concurred with Ressa’s ruling and entered an order granting the mother’s petition requiring the father to keep the gun away from the boy until he turns 12 and completes a hunter education course.
Cronin appealed those decisions to Cozza. Cronin said Monday he hadn’t decided whether to appeal again, to the state Court of Appeals.