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The Parents’ Culpability

There are two truisms here. The first is that there is no parent who doesn’t know, in their heart, that they could have done a better job of it. And many, if not most, did a very poor job of it. The second is that the warning signs are always more obvious after your child murders people. J

Jennifer Crumbly was not a good parent. Whether she appreciated at the time her son, Ethan, murdered four of his classmates, just how bad a mother she was is another matter. Sure, we can now, after four classmates were killed, but there’s nothing like a quadruple murder to clarify whether the shooter’s mom could have prevented the shooting. Oh, and dad James sucked too.

But neither Jennifer nor James killed anyone. Does that matter?

Did his parents share some of the blame for his killing spree? Of course they did. His dad James bought the then–15-year-old Ethan a semiautomatic handgun as an early Christmas present, and then left it in an open drawer. Ethan told his mom that he saw demons. He wrote in his journal that “I have zero help for my mental problems.” But Jennifer Crumbley ignored the signs that her son needed help.

Most shocking of all, on the morning of the shooting, school officials wanted Jennifer to take Ethan home after they saw a drawing he’d done of a gun and a bleeding human body. “The thoughts won’t stop,” he’d written. “Help me.” Jennifer promised she would take him to a therapist, but in the meantime, she left him at school. Neither she nor the school officials realized he had the gun in his backpack. Hours later, he went on his rampage.

Two facts stand out. First, that the father bought a gun for his son. Second, that they parents failed to secure the gun so that Ethan couldn’t take it to school and use it to murder four students. In the scheme of school mass shootings, particularly in the scheme of those who blame guns for shootings along with the shooter, these two facts are of extreme significance.

Had Ethan, suffering as he was from whatever mental illness compelled him to murder his classmates, not had a gun, it would not have ended in the utterly needless murder of four young people. And had his father, his parents, not gotten him a gun, not neglected gun safety, Ethan would not have had a gun in school that day.

The argument is that the facts of this case are so unusual, so extreme, as to distinguish them as singularly reckless.

But, legal experts say, don’t expect a rush of similar cases.

“I have heard many people say they think a guilty verdict in this case will open the floodgates to these kinds of prosecutions going forward,” said Eve Brensike Primus, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “To be honest, I’m not convinced that’s true.”

That’s because prosecutors in Michigan had notably compelling evidence against the mother, Jennifer Crumbley — including text messages and the accounts of a meeting with school officials just hours before the shooting at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021 — that jurors felt proved she should have known the mental state of her son, Ethan Crumbley, who was 15 at the time.

No parent wants to believe that their child would be capable of such a heinous act. Whether lawprof Eve Brensike Primus honestly isn’t convinced that this could happen to anyone else isn’t particularly helpful. Since when was convincing Primus the limiting principle of holding a parent culpable for the acts of her child? Had Ethan not murdered four classmates, but Jennifer been prosecuted nonetheless for the attempt, should she have known that the mental state of her son was homicidal? After he killed, it’s barely a baby step to what she should have known. If he hadn’t killed, Jennifer might be out riding her horse today and her son, Ethan, handing in his math homework.

There is nothing like a mass murder to crystallize who should have known what and what they should have done about it.

Why has the judicial system largely left parents alone? Two reasons. The first is that the parents are invariably wracked with shame and guilt and pain that is never going to go away. Prosecutors have children, too; they can well understand the parents’ agony. And they usually conclude that that anguish is punishment enough.

The second reason, though, is that the law doesn’t really have anything to say about the actions of parents whose kids use the family gun to shoot their fellow students. In fact, even on those rare occasions when prosecutors have sought to punish negligent parents, the sentences were little more than a slap on the wrist.

Joe Nocera makes clear his loathing of guns and the harm they do. He’s hardly the only one. But this hatred of guns tends to deflect attention from the problem. Sure, the parents of a shooter are likely (though not “invariably”) “wracked with shame and guilt and pain,” though that matters far more when the victim is their child rather than other parents’ children.

But the law does provide a mechanism for the prosecution of parents, just as it provides a means to address the culpability of anyone who commits a crime. The problem is that it is limited to the conduct they committed, not that someone else committed and which they failed to realize and remedy beforehand.

Were the Crumbley’s neglectful parents? If so, then deal with that. Were they reckless in their failure to lock up the gun? If so, prosecute them for it. An imaginative prosecutor could likely come up with a half dozen crimes they committed by putting their conduct under a microscope in the aftermath of Ethan’s murder spree. The sentences may not be life plus cancer, as might suffice for Nocera, but that would nonetheless be the sentence for the conduct they committed. The conduct they did not commit was killing anyone, no matter how awful they were as parents and how, in retrospect, they failed their child and the four children he murdered.

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