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Michigan school shooting: Why were the suspect’s parents charged?

The parents of the 15-year-old accused of killing four students at a high school in southeast Michigan last week “could have stopped” the mass shooting but chose not to act, authorities have said.

That is what prompted local prosecutors to file involuntary manslaughter charges against James and Jennifer Crumbley in what observers say is one of the first times the parents of an accused mass shooter in the United States have faced criminal charges.

The Crumbleys, who pleaded not guilty, are expected to mount a stern defence, but analysts say the charges against them send an equally forceful message in a country struggling to stop deadly gun violence in schools.

“Part of the reason to prosecute anybody is two [pronged], to punish for what the person has done, but it’s also to deter others,” Jamil Khuja, a criminal defence lawyer and former assistant prosecutor in the Detroit area, told Al Jazeera.

“So, the message is: ‘Hey, if you own guns, you need to lock them up and make sure your kids don’t have access to them without your knowledge.’”

Timeline of events

Authorities say Ethan Crumbley opened fire “methodically” at Oxford High School north of Detroit on November 30, killing four people and injuring seven others in a planned attack. He is facing numerous charges, including terrorism and first-degree murder.

While he is looking at the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, his parents could spend up to 15 years in jail if convicted for involuntary manslaughter.

Khuja said it is ultimately up to the prosecuting lawyer – also known as a district attorney in some parts of the US – to lay criminal charges, a decision often based on whether the available evidence can secure a conviction.

Prosecutors say James Crumbley bought the gun for his son on November 26 and his mother took him to a shooting range a day later. Jennifer Crumbley also dismissed her son looking up ammunition on his phone at school days before the shooting, authorities say. “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” she told him in a text message, according to prosecutors.

On the day of the shooting, Crumbley’s parents were called to the school after a teacher discovered a note on the teenager’s desk depicting a person who appeared to be shot, a gun, a bullet and the words “blood everywhere” and “help me”. The parents were told to get counselling for Ethan, but left after the meeting as the teenager was allowed back into the classroom.

“I think what this prosecutor did is she looked at the evidence – some of the text messages and social media posts, the carefree attitude [the parents] had about guns with their kid – and said, ‘they should be held responsible’,” Khuja said.

Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald brought involuntary manslaughter charges against Ethan Crumbley’s parents last week [File: Carlos Osorio/AP Photo]

‘There must be accountability’

In Michigan, each county elects its own prosecuting attorney. Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald, a former judge, was elected in Oakland County in 2020 as a Democrat.

When announcing the charges against the Crumbleys last week, McDonald said the couple’s conduct was not only “unconscionable” but also “criminal”.

She told reporters the decision to file charges aimed to serve as a deterrent to others, as well. “These charges are intended to hold the individuals who contributed to this tragedy accountable and also send a message that gun owners have a responsibility,” she said.

However, the Crumbleys’ lawyers said during the couple’s first court appearance last week that the gun Ethan Crumbley used in the shoot “was actually locked”, arguing that there is “far more going on” than what the prosecution had told the court.

Still, the move to lay charges against the couple was welcomed by gun control advocates, including the Michigan chapters of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, which belong to the Everytown for Gun Safety advocacy network.

“When gun owners fail to uphold their responsibility to securely store their firearms and tragedy ensues, there must be accountability,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement. “We must both inform gun owners of their obligation and responsibility to securely store their guns, and pass and enforce laws that hold gun owners accountable when they fail to do so.”

Students hug each other outside Oxford High School in Michigan, December 1 [File: Paul Sancya/AP Photo]

Access to guns

Most US school shooters acquire their guns from home, according to a 2019 report (PDF) by the US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center that analysed incidents of targeted school violence between 2008 and 2017. The report notes that “many of the firearms were unsecured”.

There were 229 gun-related incidents, including nine active shooter situations, in US schools so far in 2021, according to the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security. The violence has killed 39 people on school property.

Rebeccah Sokol, an assistant professor at Wayne State University’s School of Social Work in Detroit who studies youth exposure to adversity, said stricter child access prevention laws appear to prevent youth firearm injuries and deaths.

But gun laws vary by state, and Michigan does not have a gun storage law, which would require gun owners to “store their firearms unloaded and locked when unattended”, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group.

“Safe storage laws promote responsible gun-owning practices by requiring gun owners to store their firearms unloaded and locked when unattended,” the centre says in a factsheet backing such legislation. “These laws are intended to help prevent unauthorized users, including children, from accessing and using firearms, which can reduce tragedies due to suicide, unintentional discharges, and gun theft.”

McDonald, the prosecutor, has lamented Michigan’s regulations as “woefully inadequate” and the Oxford High School shooting has spurred calls for stricter gun laws in the state and across the country.

“The thing we do know is that access to a firearm is one of the biggest risk factors for youth firearm injury,” Sokol told Al Jazeera. “And we know that most of these firearm-related injuries among adolescents happen with a firearm that the adolescent accesses from a home or from a family or friend.”

Sokol did not specifically address the Crumbleys’ case, but she said limiting minors’ access to firearms must be included in efforts to end gun violence.

“To see how [the Oxford shooting] is affecting the community, the heartbreak it’s causing, the worry it’s causing, the disruption it’s causing in everybody’s life – people are scared,” Sokol said. “And I think it highlights the need to further research what are the best solutions – and I say solutions, plural – to prevent this type of tragedy from happening in the future.”

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