Deja Taylor’s son took his gun 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 American courts in other parts of the country have ruled against the federal law that prohibits 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 sentence.
“This case is not a marijuana case,” they wrote. “It’s a case that underscores the inherently dangerous nature and circumstances that arise from the corrosive cocktail of mixing consistent and long-term controlled substance use with a deadly firearm.”
Taylor agreed to a negotiated guilty plea in June in US District Court in Newport News, in the state’s southeastern 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 documents. They claimed 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 disheartened and completely remorseful for the unintended consequences and mistakes that led to this horrific shooting,” her attorneys wrote.
They also said she needs treatment for marijuana addiction.
“Addiction is a disease and incarceration is not the cure,” her lawyers wrote.
Taylor’s lawyers 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 prohibited from possessing 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 the case should be taken up.
Federal law generally prohibits people from possessing firearms if, among other things, they have been convicted of a felony, have been committed to a mental institution or are an illegal user of a controlled substance.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that nearly 8,700 people were sentenced 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 almost 88% of them were convicted because of a previous felony conviction.
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policy 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 past year, and about 40% owned guns.
Taylor’s sentencing could offer the first measure of accountability for the January shooting, which reignited a national dialogue about gun violence and shook the military shipyard city of Newport News.
Taylor, 26, still faces a separate sentencing in December at the state level for child neglect. And Zwerner is suing the school system for $40 million, claiming administrators ignored numerous warnings that the boy had a gun.
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 got the gun by climbing a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the firearm was in his mother’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 his son, now 7, since the shooting, according to court documents.
It wasn’t the first time Taylor’s gun had been fired in public, prosecutors wrote. Taylor shot her son’s father in December after seeing him with his girlfriend.
“You could have killed me,” the father told Taylor in a text message, according to a brief from prosecutors.
Some time after her son shot his teacher, Taylor smoked two butts, the prosecutor added. She also failed drug tests while awaiting sentencing on the federal charges.
Taylor’s lawyers said Taylor “vulnerably stands before this court humiliated, remorseful and saddened.”
Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report.