by Jodi L. Miller
A project undertaken by The Washington Post that analyzed school shootings from 1999, the year of the Columbine High School shooting, revealed that the average age for school shooters is 16. According to a 2019 assessment published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in 76% of school shootings the weapon used in the crime came from the home of a parent or close family relative.
Does that mean the parents of a shooter bear some responsibility? The Michigan court system is currently grappling with the issue.
On November 30, 2021, Ethan Crumbley, a sophomore at Oxford High School in Michigan, killed four of his classmates, injuring six other students and one teacher. Ethan was charged as an adult with 24 criminal charges, including first-degree murder. His parents were each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
In October 2022, Ethan pleaded guilty to all charges and faces life in prison. He will not be sentenced until after his parents’ trial is completed. Because Ethan pled guilty, which means the right to self-incrimination is not an issue, he could be called to testify against his parents.
Rare to charge parents
Sarah L. Swan, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark who teaches criminal law and focuses on third-party responsibility, says this type of charge is rare, but holding parents accountable for gun violence is not new. She points to a case in Indiana where a mother pled guilty to child neglect for not removing the firearms at her home after her mentally ill son used her gun to shoot at others in a school and then killed himself. In another Washington case, Professor Swan notes, a father was sentenced to two years in prison for illegally possessing firearms after his son used one of them to kill four students and himself.
Still, those cases did not result in as serious a charge as involuntary manslaughter, where James and Jennifer Crumbley could face 15 years in prison. At issue in the case against the Crumbleys is the fact that the gun used was allegedly bought for Ethan by his father just days before the shooting, and Jennifer Crumbley referred to it on social media as a “Christmas present” for her son. In February 2022, during a preliminary hearing to determine whether the Crumbleys should stand trial, evidence was presented to suggest that the parents ignored their son’s growing mental health problems, including entries from Ethan’s journal, one of which read: “I actually asked my dad to take me to the doctor yesterday but he just gave me some pills and told me to suck it up…My mom just laughed when I told her.”
In addition, on the day before the shooting, Ethan was caught in school looking up bullets on his cellphone. School personnel left a voicemail on his mother’s phone but received no reply. On the morning of the shooting, according to a transcript of the hearing, one of Ethan’s teachers reported to a counselor that Ethan had written disturbing phrases on his homework, including “my life is useless,” “the world is dead,” and “the thoughts won’t stop.” The Crumbleys were immediately called to the school that morning.
According to the transcript, the counselor testified that the parents were told their son needed help right away, but they said they could not take him home as they had to return to work. Ultimately, a district court judge granted the prosecution’s request for the Crumbleys to be tried in court. The judge said: “The court finds the deaths of the four victims could have been avoided if James and Jennifer Crumbley exercised ordinary care and diligence in the care of their son.”
What prosecutors need to prove
Even with the evidence against the Crumbleys, proving their case will not be easy for the prosecution. As Professor Swan explains, they will have to prove their case to a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The parents have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. In these circumstances, the prosecutor will need to show that the parents caused the death of the victims by acting with gross negligence,” Professor Swan says. “They have to show that the conduct of the parents caused the deaths, meaning that without the conduct the deaths would not have happened, and that the conduct was the legal cause of the death.”
Professor Swan would not speculate on what specific conduct the prosecution will rely on—such as failing to get their son mental health assistance or failing to store the gun properly. So, what about the ordinary care that the judge referred to?
As Professor Swan explains, in order to convict someone of a crime you have to show that they behaved with a mental state that makes them “morally culpable.” This is known as “mens rea,” Professor Swan says, which is Latin for “guilty mind.”
For the crime of involuntary manslaughter, the mens rea or culpable mental state is one of gross negligence, says Professor Swan. She notes that the Michigan Model Jury Instructions describe gross negligence as “more than carelessness,” which means “willfully disregarding the results to others that might follow from an act or failure to act.”
Professor Swan says those instructions stipulate that a jury would have to find three things to convict: (1) the defendant “knew of the danger to another” (2) that they “could have avoided injuring another by using ordinary care” and (3) that they “failed to use ordinary care to prevent injuring another when, to a reasonable person, it must have been apparent that the result was likely to be serious injury.”
One issue the Crumbleys’ case has brought to the forefront is Child Access Prevention laws, commonly referred to as CAP laws. These laws vary by state, but essentially hold that a person is criminally liable if a child gains access to a firearm, regardless of whether the child actually uses the firearm or causes an injury. While minors in Michigan are not allowed to own a handgun, the state does not have a CAP law.
Washington, D.C. and 23 states, including New Jersey, have some type of CAP law. In fact, in New Jersey firearms dealers are required to give the following written warning, “printed in block letters not less than one-fourth of an inch in height”: “IT IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE, PUNISHABLE BY A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT, FOR AN ADULT TO LEAVE A LOADED FIREARM WITHIN EASY ACCESS OF A MINOR.”
What a conviction could mean
In December 2022, the Michigan State Supreme Court temporarily halted the Crumbleys’ trial and ordered an appeals court to review the parents’ claim that they were improperly ordered to stand trial. Attorneys for the Crumbleys allege that there is new evidence that would lessen the parents’ chance of conviction, including a school counselor that has come forward to say that the Crumbleys did not refuse to take their son home on the day of the shooting.
What would it mean for this type of prosecution if the Crumbleys are convicted of such a serious charge?
“I think the hope is that other parents will read about the case and may take more safeguards to ensure their firearms are not accessible to their children as a result, and that parents might be more vigilant about noticing signs of mental illness and a desire for extreme violence in their kids,” says Professor Swan. “The idea is that these kinds of precautions could help prevent future occurrences. If the parents are convicted, it might make other prosecutors more interested in charging parents, but these are difficult cases to win, which is part of the reason why we have not seen many of them until now.”
On March 23, 2023, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that there is sufficient evidence to require that the Crumbleys stand trial.
- What do you think of parents being held accountable for the actions of their child? Does that give kids a pass on their bad behavior? Explain your answer.
- What do you think of CAP laws? Would they be enough of a deterrent to keep guns out of the hands of minors? Explain your answer.
- What support services should schools offer to students who, like Ethan Crumbley, may be struggling with mental health issues?
beyond a reasonable doubt –must believe to a moral certainty in the guilt of the accused. This is the highest standard required in a criminal case.
gross negligence—carelessness that is in reckless disregard for the safety of others.
involuntary manslaughter – the crime of killing someone unlawfully but unintentionally.
self-incrimination — to testify against yourself.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of The Legal Eagle—Special Gun Safety Edition.