Michigan shooting suspect’s parents charged with involuntary manslaughter

The New York Times
Lansing, MichiganWritten By: Jack Healy and Serge F. Kovaleski ©️ 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Dec 03, 2021, 11:53 PM IST
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Although many underage school shooters arm themselves with guns from home, the adults responsible for the weapons are rarely charged, experts say

Prosecutors in Michigan took a rare step Friday by filing involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents of the 15-year-old accused of fatally shooting four students in the halls of Oxford High School, according to court documents.

The office of Karen D. McDonald, the prosecutor in Oakland County, filed four charges of involuntary manslaughter against James and Jennifer Crumbley, one for each of the students killed.

Law enforcement authorities say that James Crumbley legally bought the 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun four days before his son used it to carry out the country’s deadliest school shooting this year. Hours before the attack, he and his wife met with school officials who were concerned about their son’s behaviour.

It is unclear how their son, Ethan, obtained the handgun and brought it to school. But law enforcement authorities say he walked out of a school bathroom Tuesday afternoon armed with the semi-automatic pistol and three 15-round magazines.

He opened fire on his classmates, authorities said, firing more than 30 rounds before he was apprehended. The slain students were identified as Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Justin Shilling, 17; and Hana St. Juliana, 14. Seven other people were wounded.

Although many underage school shooters arm themselves with guns from home, the adults responsible for the weapons are rarely charged, experts say.

Many states, including Michigan, do not have laws requiring guns to be locked away, and experts say prosecuting a gunman’s family members in the raw aftermath of a mass shooting can raise divisive questions pitting Second Amendment rights against gun safety.

When McDonald announced a litany of charges that included terrorism — rare in school shooting cases — against the suspect the day after the rampage at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit, she made a point to say she was also considering charging his parents.

“Owning a gun means securing it properly and locking it and keeping the ammunition separate and not allowing access to other individuals, particularly minors,” McDonald said at a news conference Wednesday. “We have to hold individuals accountable who don’t do that.”

A lawyer for Ethan Crumbley pleaded not guilty on his behalf this week.

Investigators say the teenager talked about his desire and plans to kill classmates at Oxford in two cellphone videos and a journal they found in his backpack.

Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County said that Oxford school officials had spoken twice to the suspect about concerns over his classroom behaviour — once the day before the shooting, and again that morning. But the superintendent of the Oxford school district said the suspect did not have a disciplinary record at the high school and added the concerns about his behaviour did not lead to any punishment.

“No discipline was warranted,” Tim Throne, superintendent of the Oxford Community Schools, said in a YouTube video posted Thursday.

Gun control advocates have argued for more prosecutions of adults when their weapons fall into the hands of children, leading to suicides, accidental deaths or intentional school shootings. But legal experts say a patchwork of state laws — some stringent and some lax — regulating gun storage and children’s access to weapons can pose a hurdle to prosecutions.

Kris Brown, president of the gun control group Brady United, said that Michigan, unlike nearly 30 other states, did not have what was known as a child access prevention law requiring adults to keep any guns in their home out of the reach of children.

“The idea is that if you have a kid in the home, even if it is not your own kid, any firearm needs to be stored safely — which means unloaded, locked and separated from any ammunition,” Brown said.

States like California and New York set tougher safety standards for gun owners, while more gun-friendly states in the Southeast impose penalties only if a child actually obtains or fires a gun.

“Michigan doesn’t have a strong law or a weak law,” Brown said. “It has no law on this.”

Parents across the country have been charged with child abuse, violating gun laws and even negligent manslaughter after their young children accidentally shot themselves or other children. But gun control experts said McDonald’s move to charge the parents of a mass shooting suspect was almost unheard-of.

“I can’t think of a high-profile mass shooting where the parents were prosecuted,” said Allison Anderman, director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In western Kentucky, there were calls three years ago to prosecute the stepfather of a 15-year-old school shooter after authorities learned the teenage gunman had obtained his stepfather’s handgun from an unlocked bedroom closet.

But the local prosecutor, Dennis Foust, decided he could not make a case against the stepfather. Kentucky law makes it a crime to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” provide a handgun to a minor — a high standard to prove. Foust said the stepfather did not know the gun was gone until questioned by investigators after the shooting.

“I’m a firm believer in gun responsibility, but we just didn’t see there was enough there,” he said.

Foust said that local law enforcement also opposed charging the stepfather with a crime and wanted to keep the focus of the prosecution squarely on the gunman, who is serving a life sentence after killing two classmates.

“There needs to be accountability,” Foust said. “But under our situation, we weren’t able to do that. I don’t know that society, at least here, would effect sufficient change to be able to prosecute a parent.”