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Parents of school shooters are rarely charged

"We must start holding people accountable for what their kids do. This is not a toy," Michigan Sen. Rosemary Bayer said.

In a rare move, the parents of the 15-year-old who is suspected of opening fire at Oxford High School in Michigan, killing four, have been charged in what advocates say is a warning for responsible gun ownership and a step toward accountability.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald charged Jennifer and James Crumbley with four counts of involuntary manslaughter on Friday. Their son, Ethan Crumbley, 15, is suspected in Tuesday's mass shooting.

"These charges are intended to hold the individuals who contributed to this tragedy accountable and send a message that gun owners have a responsibility," McDonald said. "When they fail to uphold that responsibility, there are serious, and criminal, consequences."

Though school shootings are familiar territory in the U.S., it is uncommon for parents to be charged in such cases.

A Washington Post review of 105 schools shootings committed by minors from 1999 to 2018, in which the origin of the weapon used was identified, found the guns were taken from a child's home — or a relative's or friend's home — 84 times. In only four of those instances were adult owners of the weapons criminally punished for failing to safely store them.

NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the charges against parents in cases like this are "not particularly common" — but they're not unprecedented in Michigan.

Cevallos cited the 2018 case People v. Head in which the Michigan Court of Appeals held that a man was responsible for involuntary manslaughter after he allowed his kids to have access to a gun. The defendant's 9-year-old son was fatally shot by his 10-year-old daughter in November 2015 after a shotgun was left in a "readily accessible location in his home."

He said the charges are a "good strategic choice only because as recently as 2018, a similar theory of liability was upheld."

"They have a clear path to a conviction, if they have the evidence," Cevallos said. "Does this herald a new era of holding parents responsible for homicides committed by their children? Maybe."

Under Michigan law, parents of a child who violates firearm-related laws on school property or in a school vehicle can be held criminally liable if the parent knew the child's intentions or furthered their actions.

In this case, police believe that the 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun used in the shooting was purchased by the suspect's father days before.

McDonald said in a news conference Friday that it was purchased effectively for their son, and he was present for the sale. That gun was stored "unlocked in a drawer" at the Crumbley home, she said.

She also said a teacher observed the suspect searching ammunition on his cellphone and alerted school officials, but when they tried to contact his mother, she was unreachable.

Instead of contacting the school, Jennifer Crumbley allegedly texted her son: "Lol. I'm not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught."

The day of the shooting, another teacher said they saw the suspect drawing a gun and a bullet with the words "blood everywhere" and "help me" and "my life is useless," McDonald said, and the parents were called to the school.

"The notion that a parent could read those words and also know that their child has access to a weapon that they gave them is unconscionable. It is criminal," McDonald said.

Advocates hail charges as 'a move in the right direction'

Guns used in school shootings often come from a family member's home. In 45 percent of incidents involving school shooters under the age of 18 where the gun source was identified, 74 percent of shooters obtained the gun or guns from their home or the homes of relatives or friends, according to gun control advocacy group Everytown.

Michigan generally does not require firearm owners to lock their weapons, according to Giffords.

"If this kid hadn't had access to a gun, there most likely would not have been a school shooting," Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a group that seeks to end gun violence in the U.S., said.

"The parents certainly played a role in that by buying the semi-automatic handgun on Black Friday and then enabling their child to have easy access to it," she said.

"It is important to all gun owners to know that the onus is on them to protect their families, their communities, by securely storing their firearm," Watts said.

Allison Anderman, the senior counsel and director of local policy at Giffords, called the charges "a move in the right direction."

"Parents, and all people, need to store their guns responsibly. Don't forget Adam Lanza's mother got the ultimate punishment for failing to secure her firearms," she said, citing the Sandy Hook school shooter. "Her son took her guns and killed her with them. I'm not sure what people need to hear to get them to change their behaviors."

Ethan Crumbley was charged as an adult Wednesday with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of terrorism causing death, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony in the Tuesday shooting. He pleaded not guilty.

Michigan Sen. Rosemary Bayer, whose district includes Oxford High School, introduced a bill in the state Legislature in June seeking to hold parents accountable if they fail to secure firearms. Under that bill, if a minor obtains a gun and uses it to injure or kill others, the adult would face up to five years in prison.

"This kind of bill, specifically about making sure that children don't have access to your guns, reduces the number of times children use guns to shoot," Bayer told NBC News.

She supported the charges, saying, "We must start holding people accountable for what their kids do. This is not a toy."

Bayer said the whole state of Michigan has been left in shock in the wake of the shooting.

"The fear, just watching it as a wave spreading across our state," Bayer said. "This is not just a local impact. This kind of thing, this really is terrifying. We have to take action. We're so far behind."