By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A 16-year-old boy armed with a shotgun opened fire in a California high school classroom on Thursday, critically wounding a fellow student before two staff members talked him into surrendering the weapon, authorities said.
The accused gunman was arrested at Taft Union High School in inland Kern County following the shooting and investigators later said he felt he was being bullied by one or two students in the class, including the boy who was shot and seriously wounded.
The incident came less than a month after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in a December rampage that stunned the nation and has fueled a heated national debate over gun control.
The California shooting unfolded on Thursday morning at the only senior high school in Taft, a city of about 10,000 people on the southwest edge of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, about 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield.
One student critically wounded by gunfire from the 12-gauge shotgun was airlifted to a nearby hospital, police said, and remained in critical but stable condition.
The identity of the shooter, who according to authorities walked into a class in progress and opened fire, was not immediately released.
"We did develop some information that leads us to believe the suspect felt he was being bullied or had been bullied by students at the school," Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said.
"We know that at least one of the students, the student who was shot, was intentionally targeted," Pruitt said.
Police said the gunman called out the name of another boy and shot at a group of students but missed. There were 28 students in the classroom at the time he opened fire, Pruitt said.
In the chaos, two girls in the classroom were hurt, one who fell over a table trying the flee the room, and another who suffered possible hearing damage from the sound of the gun blast.
GUN BELONGED TO SUSPECT'S BROTHER
The suspected shooter was arrested after a teacher and a school administrator who confronted him persuaded the boy to put his gun down, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told reporters at a press conference. Students fled the class while the two adults pacified the shooter, he said.
The teacher, who has not been named, was hit in the forehead by a shotgun pellet but not seriously injured.
"The heroics of these two people, it goes without saying," Youngblood said. "To stand there and face someone that has a shotgun, who's already discharged it and shot a student, it speaks volumes for these two young men."
Pruitt said investigators believe the gunman planned his attack Wednesday evening and that the gun belonged to his 19-year-old brother. Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were working to determine ownership of the firearm and trace its history, he said.
The suspected gunman lives near the school, and he arrived late to campus, Youngblood said. A resident near the school saw him walking toward the campus armed with a shotgun and called authorities, Youngblood said. He faces attempted murder charges.
An armed police officer is normally assigned to Taft Union High School but was not able to make it to work on Thursday because of snow on the roads, Youngblood said.
Taft school officials had held a lockdown exercise on Thursday ahead of the shooting, in part in response to the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, said Taft Union High School District superintendent Bill McDermott. They soon were forced to hold a real lockdown in response to the gunfire, he said.
The violence at the California high school occurred on the same day Vice President Joe Biden met with representatives of the powerful National Rifle Association as part of his work to develop a plan to reduce gun violence.
Biden, who is heading a task force created in response to the Newtown shooting, will present his proposals to President Barack Obama, who has already signaled his support for reinstating a national ban on assault-style rifles.
The town of Taft, about 100 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is economically reliant on oil and natural gas production in the area, and oil derricks dot its horizon.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Tim Gaynor and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Paul Thomasch, Carol Bishopric and Stacey Joyce)