Alwin Chen, an 18-year-old student who was arrested for bringing a loaded handgun to Clarksburg High School in February, was sentenced on Tuesday to serve four months in jail after pleading guilty to the crime.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John Maloney sentence Chen to three years in prison, but suspended all but four months of the term. He also ordered Chen to serve five years of supervised probation, complete 300 hours of community service and agree to random drug testing. Maloney also forbade him from owning any firearms.
Chen’s arrest came in the middle of a national debate about gun safety and, in particular, school shooters. On Feb. 14, the day before Chen was arrested, a former student fatally shot 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Chen’s attorneys have maintained that the student only brought the gun to school as a means of protecting himself and others against a potential school shooter. The judge agreed that Chen didn’t appeared to have “evil intent,” but said he wanted to send a message that “weapons cannot be allowed in schools, period.”
“What you did is scary,” Maloney said. “You’re an intelligent guy and you knew what you were doing was illegal and that concerns the court greatly.”
Chen was arrested at the Germantown high school on Feb. 15 after another student reported to the school resource officer that Chen had a gun. The officer pulled Chen out of his AP psychology class and Chen turned over the weapon—a loaded Glock 19. Police searching his Germantown home the next day found other weapons—including an AR-15-style rifle—though investigators determined they belonged to Chen’s father.
Chen has been held in custody without bail since his arrest. The time Chen has already served will count toward his sentence, meaning he could get out in May or as early as Mother’s Day, Maloney said.
Chen, who appeared in court in a green jumpsuit, said he wanted to apologize to the community and for putting a burden on his parents.
“Your honor, what I did was stupid. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody” he said to Maloney. “I just want the chance to be productive in life and I never want to be back here again.”
Chen pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of carrying a handgun on public school property. As part of a plea agreement, the charges of possessing a regulated firearm as a person under 21 years old and carrying a handgun were dropped. Three years in prison was the maximum sentence for the single charge.
During the sentencing hearing, Chen’s attorneys, Jill Michaels and David Felsen, characterized his actions as a terrible mistake made by an otherwise good teenager.
“He did the thing that, in the history of time, teenagers do sometimes,” Michaels said. “He made a big, stupid, bad mistake. Nevertheless he is not bad—this kid is good.”
Michaels described Chen’s decision to bring the gun to school in February, as the country was hyperaware of gun violence in schools, as “the worst possible timing for this big, bad teenage mistake.” She stressed that Chen has cooperated with authorities since his arrest, giving them access to his electronic accounts and telling police he had only brought the gun for protection.
“He felt trained and secure in the safety of a gun,” she said.
Chen would visit a shooting range with his father, according to prosecutors, and he built the handgun he brought to school out of parts he bought, some from Home Depot. He also allegedly made modifications to his father’s guns.
Assistant State’s Attorney Frank Lazzaro said prosecutors disagreed with the idea that bringing the gun to school was merely a mistake.
“What we have here is a series of choices he made, a person who manufactured a handgun and admitted himself he brought it to school multiple times,” he said, referring to allegations that Chen had brought the handgun to school previously between December 2017 and February. Another student also claimed Chen had worn body armor to school more than once.
Lazzaro made only passing references on Tuesday to Chen’s journals and other writings, which featured prominently in earlier hearings. He didn’t mention specifics at the sentencing, but asked that the judge consider ordering a mental health evaluation of Chen and drug testing based on the journal entries.
Prosecutors initially claimed police had found a “list of grievances” against students, though police and school officials later called the information “inaccurate” and said the list was mischaracterized.
At a later hearing, Lazzaro brought up journal entries in which Chen wrote of wanting to conduct “vigilante operations” against “evil people.”
Felsen objected Tuesday to the references to Chen allegedly bringing a weapon to school on other days, saying he was only being charged with his activities on Feb. 15.
Michaels noted how Chen was an honor roll student and a varsity track athlete and had been accepted at several colleges and offered scholarships. Growing up to Chinese-speaking parents, Chen would translate for them and was beloved by members of the community, Michaels said. The family collected more than 118 signatures and letters from the Chinese community and others attesting to his character.
Chen’s parents both spoke before the judge. His father spoke of how Chen had a desire to help everyone, including strangers.
“I believe he has a strong desire and determination to move in a positive direction with his life,” he said.
His mother said Chen was a “sensitive boy” and would apologize to the family for putting them through the criminal case every time he saw them.
“I’m a mother,” she said. “My heart is weeping for him. I always loved him. Your honor, please give my son a chance to make something of his life.”
In issuing the sentence, Maloney said he was disturbed by what he saw as a “hero complex” in Chen and worried that the 18-year-old felt “entitled” to do things he knew were illegal. He also expressed concerns about the teen’s “obsession with weapons.”
Still, he said Chen had “a bright future ahead of him” and said he should focus on being a student and staying busy the next few years. If Chen gets good grades and follows his probation, Maloney said he might consider eventually expunging the charge from his record.
“You’re at a crossroads right now,” Maloney said. “Stay out of trouble. If you get in trouble again with this in your history, that will be who you are.”
Maloney said Chen won’t be able to return to his home unless there are no weapons there. Chen’s attorneys said the family’s weapons have been held by police since they were seized, and they won’t return to the family.
Chen was also ordered not to return to Clarksburg High School, from which he was suspended and could face expulsion. However, Felsen said Chen is still expected to graduate this June from Montgomery County Public Schools, and he hopes to attend college in the fall.
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the State’s Attorney’s Office, said the sentence balanced fairness to Chen and safety for the community.
“[The sentence] allows the young man the opportunity to think about the crime that he committed and also to keep the community safe and allow him a chance at rehabilitating his future prospects,” he said after the sentencing. “As the judge said, the choice is entirely his.”