Landmark US prosecution of parents for son’s shooting of students creates legal precedent – an expert explains

Gun Rights

James and Jennifer Crumbley are the first American parents to have been convicted and sentenced on major criminal charges for a school shooting committed by their child. On November 30 2021, their 15-year-old son Ethan shot and killed Hana St.Juliana, Tate Myre, Madisyn Baldwin, and Justin Shilling and injured seven others at Oxford High School, Michigan. Ethan is currently serving life without parole.

Michigan prosecutor, Karen McDonald, surprised many in December 2021 by announcing that she also intended to charge the parents with involuntary manslaughter in relation to the killings. Few thought such a case would be successful. But in separate trials earlier this year juries found the Crumbleys guilty. On April 9 each was sentenced to between ten and 15 years in prison.

In a country where mass shooting events are shockingly frequent and where accidental and deliberate shootings by minors are not uncommon, the Crumbley case raises some serious questions. Is this now how school shootings will be addressed, by holding responsible the parents of those who commit a crime? While the verdict is too recent to fully assess all potential consequences, some possibilities, as well as significant warning signs, present themselves.

McDonald made clear when charging the Crumbleys that she saw this as an unusual case in which the parents’ behaviour was particularly negligent. According to prosecutors, this included ignoring evidence of their son’s mental health problems, their purchase of a firearm for him despite their knowledge of these problems, and negligence in cutting short a meeting at the school on the day of the shooting concerning a drawing their son made of a gun with the words: “The thoughts won’t stop. Please help me.”

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According to the sentencing judge Cheryl Matthews: “They [parents] are not expected to be psychic … [but] opportunity knocked over and over again, louder and louder, and it was ignored.” If this is a particularly egregious case of a failure to pay attention to warning signs then there may be few similar cases in the future.

This landmark case has established a prosecutorial roadmap for those who would like to follow suit, and the Crumbleys’ conviction establishes a legal precedent to encourage similar actions.

Since the 1970s, the US has seen a shift in emphasis in criminal justice policy from a focus on rehabilitation and reform to one which emphasises the punitive. A “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude has been dominant for the last half a century.

This focus on punishment, combined with the understandably heightened emotions after school shootings and the desire for justice in the wake of such tragic loss of life, makes it possible, maybe even highly likely, that prosecutions of parents become more common. Especially in cases where the shooter does not survive, the desire to “make someone pay” may well be transferred to those around the shooter who are deemed to have failed to prevent the tragedy.

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Focus on the parents of a mass shooter could provide another way to avoid talking about the fundamental issue at the heart of these events: the easy availability of guns in the US and the inability or unwillingness of lawmakers to pass reasonable, common sense gun regulation.

Gun storage laws

Prosecutors focused heavily on the fact that despite evidence of his child’s emotional instability, James Crumbley bought Ethan the gun with which he killed his fellow students. Children are not permitted to own or purchase firearms, so all guns used by child shooters, accidents or deliberate, are owned by someone else. More significant is that nearly half of states do not have safe storage laws . Michigan did not have one in November 2021, but does since February this year. Nobody seems to be talking about that.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is a common refrain from gun rights advocates. But that overlooks the fact that the availability of guns and the lack of basic safety regulations makes it easier for tragedies like this to occur. While prosecutors in Michigan expressed hope that the conviction of the Crumbleys will push parents to be more responsible gun owners, laws which would require that responsibility are relatively few and far between, opposed by the hardline gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, whose political and financial power has dominated on this issue.

James and Jennifer Crumbley, far left and right, during their trial, sitting in a courtroom.

James and Jennifer Crumbley, far left and right, during their trial.

Attempts to overturn laws which prevent anyone subject to a domestic violence charge from owning a firearm and which ban bump stocks (which turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic, assault-style weapons) are currently before the US Supreme Court. That even such seemingly reasonable regulations can be subject to challenge demonstrates the extent of the failure in the US to hold lawmakers and lobbyists to account for the tragedy of gun violence. It may be easier, and more politically feasible, to charge parents of juvenile shooters than consider passing laws to prevent access to weapons in the first place.

Equally worrying is the risk that the impact of any prosecutions similar to the Crumbleys will be felt disproportionately. By almost every statistic, people of colour and those without significant financial resources fare worse in the US criminal justice system.

Arguments that the Crumbleys were negligent are likely to particularly concern black and Native American communities. Both have long histories of being unfairly deemed unfit and irresponsible parents, leading to the removal of children. Generations faced forced removal to boarding schools or foster placements with white families. It’s not unreasonable to think that such attitudes could influence decisions about prosecutions for negligent parents in the case of a juvenile shooter.

But for these reasons anyone inclined to follow the path laid out by this prosecution should pay attention to both the specifics of the case and the potential pitfalls of making this a common approach.

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