Lunchtime was drawing to a close at Oxford High School in Michigan on November 30 when Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old college student, opened fire with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Four classmates died and seven other people – six students and a teacher – were injured.
Ethan’s father, James Crumbley, had bought the gun just four days earlier as a Christmas present for his son. Shortly after purchasing the gun, Ethan’s mother, Jennifer Crumbley, posted on social media: “Mum and son party, testing her new Christmas present.”
Hours before the shooting, school officials raised concerns in a face-to-face meeting with parents about Ethan’s emotional stability and his potential for violence. The parents were told they were to ask Ethan to consult within two days and were asked to bring Ethan home for the day. The Crumbleys refused a request from school officials to bring their son home. They did not mention the weapon to school officials and did not ask their son if he had it with him.
Although James and Jennifer Crumbley have been charged with manslaughter, it is rare for parents to be prosecuted for shootings committed by children. How can the justice and penal system hold parents accountable for gun violence perpetrated by their children? Considering that parents are more responsible for death and injury than their emotionally troubled 15-year-old, what can be done?
The answers may not satisfy everyone. The criminal justice system is currently ill-suited to allocate responsibility according to guilt in cases like this.
Crimes and intent
Criminal law and sanctions aim to punish âintentionalâ acts that harm others. In law school, the first case assigned to reading in my criminal law class involved an accused who believed the victim had consented to have sex. The issue was not the victim’s consent, it was the accused’s state of mind. Failure to prove that the defendant intended to have sex against the victim’s will was a successful defense against the prosecution. The accused was acquitted.
Acts of negligence are not treated as criminal except where the negligence is gross and the consequences are serious (eg death). State legislatures created the criminal offense of manslaughter to punish gross behavior, which results in death. Many states, such as Michigan, require a finding that the behavior demonstrates a disregard for human life and safety.
The legal standard
The legal standard required to prove manslaughter is high. Prosecutors must prove that the accused acted with gross negligence. Michigan law defines gross negligence as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern as to whether an injury results.”
Eve Brensike Primus, a University of Michigan law professor who focuses on criminal procedure, told the Washington Post why such charges are rare. âIt’s really hard to show that parents have a contempt for human life and that they could actually predict that their child will do this,â she said.
The evidence supports charges against James and Jennifer Crumbley.
Consider the following:
– The circumstances surrounding the purchase of the handgun.
– The mother’s reaction after being informed that her son was looking for ammunition online during class (âLOLâ, she wrote to him, adding: âYou have to learn not to get caughtâ).
– Parents’ refusal to withdraw their son from school at the request of school officials, their inability to inform school officials of Ethan’s access to a gun and their inability to him ask if he had the gun in his possession.
This is all evidence that would demonstrate gross negligence and establish probable cause for the manslaughter charges.
Conviction, however, will not be easy. Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that James and Jennifer Crumbley acted so recklessly that they didn’t care about human life and safety.
âI am by no means saying that an active shooter situation should always result in criminal proceedings against the parents. But the facts of this case are so glaring, âsaid Oakland County District Attorney Karen McDonald, announcing the charges against James and Jennifer Crumbley. âI want to be very clear that these accusations are meant to hold accountable those who contributed to this tragedy and also to send the message that gun owners have a responsibility. When they do not respect this responsibility, there are serious and criminal consequences. “
Intentional acts vs guilt
Ethan Crumbley has been charged as an adult. Like his parents, he pleaded not guilty. If found guilty, he faces life imprisonment. Considering his age, apparent emotional state, and the actions of the parents, a life sentence may seem excessive, compared to the limited sentence – I guess it’s 15 – incurred by his parents. This tragedy happened because the adults in the household did not act like adults.
The criminal justice system struggles to address these perceived inequities in sentencing. Legislatures will (and should) always prescribe harsher penalties for crimes for which intent to cause injury or death is an element of the crime and has been proven. Courts, parole boards and governors may have discretion to consider mitigating factors; however, these institutions and officials are often constrained by public opinion and political considerations.
If adults do not act like adults by controlling their guns and storing them safely, resulting in the deaths of children and others, what can the legal system do?
With rights come responsibilities
Reasonable gun regulation is needed to reduce the bloodshed. Background checks should be required for all sales of firearms. Firearms registration is not confiscation and serves the interests of law-abiding owners, law enforcement and the public by collecting and removing stolen and illegal firearms from the streets.
States could impose storage requirements and the purchase of insurance in connection with the purchase of weapons. Neither the liberty nor the right conferred by the Second Amendment is free. Deaths and injuries from firearms impose extraordinary human and economic costs on our society. Gun owners should pay the costs associated with exercising this freedom.
Such proposals will provoke fierce opposition. I recently received a letter of membership in the National Rifle Association, which attacks “hundreds of freedom-hating politicians, judges, billionaires, and media elites,” who “attack your freedom with whatever they want. ‘they have in their arsenal’. The letter continues: “THEY WILL NOT STOP until they ban millions of guns in common possession …”
I am not a politician, judge, billionaire, or member of the “media elite” but I support gun regulation as a former prosecutor and a citizen appalled at the level of gun violence in our country . I grew up in a rural Iowa home where we had a rifle and shotgun for hunting.
In ROTC and in the US Army, I qualified with the M-16 and familiarized myself with the .45 caliber pistol and other firearms.
After a threat to a law enforcement officer by an accused I was suing, I considered purchasing a handgun for personal protection. I decided not to buy because we had small children in our house at the time – the risk of an accident outweighed the risk of harm I perceived from the accused. I don’t hate guns, but I respect their legitimate goals and lethality.
Madness to do nothing
Whenever a mass shooting is reported, I remember the following quote: âThe definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Once the anger and outrage subsides, the NRA and politicians are usually successful in blocking efforts to tackle the outbreak of gun violence.
Trusting the personal responsibility of all gun owners and accepting the status quo is unacceptable. It is folly to trust the personal responsibility of members of the armed mobs who descend on state capitals and courthouses to support their causes. There is nothing more dangerous for our democracy than thugs with guns and a sense of entitlement.
Last week marked the ninth anniversary of the massacre of 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – even after this horrific event, Congress failed to act. Too many children and innocent people die from gun violence in the United States each year. Our laws must change to ensure that all citizens, especially children, enjoy the benefits of life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
As Prosecutor Karen McDonald said, âWe have to do better in this country. We have to say enough is enough. “
Indeed. To be outraged but to do nothing to change the laws to protect all citizens only follows the prescription of insanity.
Gregory Hand, a resident of Manheim Township, is a retired U.S. Army civilian lawyer (1989 to 2017). He was an army judge advocate in Germany and a local prosecutor in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1980 to 1989.