RIVERVIEW — When the bus driver noticed the gun, she convinced herself it wasn't real.
"It has to be a toy," 51-year-old Debra Dryden remembered thinking. "It has to be a toy."
In the seat closest to her on the bus' passenger side, a 9-year-old student was slipping a small, loaded .22-caliber handgun into his pants pocket.
The bus was full, packed with 35 to 40 students on their way to Ippolito Elementary School on S Falkenberg Road. Dryden said she looked back over her shoulder when she heard another student who was sitting next to the third-grader say, "I'll never mess with you again."
The boy was arrested Wednesday after Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies met Dryden's bus outside of the school. Students were unloaded while Dryden kept the 9-year-old behind in his seat. Deputies escorted him off the bus, and Dryden said he denied having the gun until deputies found it in his pocket.
The gun, a derringer, doesn't have a safety, Hillsborough County sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said.
A Hillsborough County Schools spokeswoman said Dryden followed procedure by reporting what she saw to bus dispatch, who in turn contacted authorities.
Despite the danger made obvious later — a loaded gun and a full school bus heading toward a building teeming with children — Dryden said she wasn't scared.
"He never said or did anything to make me feel threatened," Dryden said.
McKinnon said it's not yet clear where the boy got the gun. He initially told deputies it came from home, but then told them he'd found it in the park and hidden it at home before bringing it to school to show off, McKinnon said. Any further charges against the boy's parents would depend on finding out how the pistol made its way into his pocket.
Records show his mother, Canika Moore, was charged with a misdemeanor in July for failure to ensure school attendance, but those charges were dropped.
The boy was booked into the Hillsborough County Juvenile Assessment Center but is expected to be released to his family.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @clairelwiseman.