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Crumbley parents arrested in Michigan may start school shooting legal trend

Charging Jennifer and James Crumbley with manslaughter for allegedly permitting Ethan Crumbley access to the gun used at Oxford High School sends a strong message.

On Friday, Oakland County, Michigan prosecutor Karen McDonald filed four counts of involuntary manslaughter against James and Jennifer Crumbley. The Crumbley’s 15-year-old son Ethan is the main suspect in a shooting on Tuesday that left four students at Oxford High School dead. (All have pleaded not guilty.)

Like many midwestern states, Michigan has a strong hunting tradition, and fully anticipates its minor children will handle firearms.

At the press conference announcing the charges, McDonald openly expressed her frustration with Michigan’s firearms laws. Like many midwestern states, Michigan has a strong hunting tradition, and fully anticipates its minor children will handle firearms. In some more rural school districts — close to where I grew up — students may take opening day of the deer season off to go hunting with a parent. That’s likely why McDonald kept stressing the importance of “responsible” gun ownership. She’s acknowledging to her constituents — and voters — that teens can have access to firearms in Michigan if done responsibly. This is in contrast to what the state alleges the Crumbleys did: allow their son access to a gun despite repeated warnings that he might use the weapon to hurt others.

Charging the parents with manslaughter for permitting their child access to a firearm used in a shooting is not unprecedented, but it may signal a new trend. The prosecutor here is not charging the parents under specific gun-related statutes. Rather, involuntary manslaughter can be applied to any creative theory of gross negligence that results in death. Maybe heightened parental responsibility standards is a solution that both sides of the gun debate can get behind. We can provide schools with security plans and active shooter drills, but making more parents criminally responsible could be a powerful preventative fix.

In Michigan, there already is precedent for holding parents responsible for their child’s shootings. The Michigan Court of Appeals, as recently as 2018, upheld the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a parent whose 9-year-old son shot himself to death after the boy gained access to his dad’s unsecured shotgun. But just because prosecutors have a path to a conviction does not mean this case is a slam dunk.

Manslaughter is defined as murder without malice — that is, murder without the intent to kill. In Michigan, involuntary manslaughter is a catch-all crime that encompasses killings that are not murder, voluntary manslaughter, or a justified or excused homicide.

To convict the parents of involuntary manslaughter, the state will have to prove that the parents were “grossly negligent” in allowing their son access to a firearm, and that their gross negligence caused the deaths of the students.

Gross negligence means more than just carelessness. It means willfully disregarding the results to others from the failure to act.

To prove the parents were grossly negligent, the state will have to show that they knew of the danger posed by their son’s access to a firearm, and they failed to avert that harm.

To prove the parents were grossly negligent, the state will have to show that they knew of the danger posed by their son’s access to a firearm, and they failed to avert that harm by using ordinary care. When assessing the potential harm, it must be apparent to a reasonable person that the parents’ failure was likely to result in serious injury.

Gross negligence is often synonymous with wantonness. Wantonness exists when the defendants know the risks but are indifferent to the results; it constitutes a higher degree of culpability than recklessness.

And even if the state proves the parents were grossly negligent, the state will also have to prove that their negligence “caused” the students’ deaths. Causation is an element of involuntary manslaughter which requires proof of two separate things: factual causation and proximate causation.

Factual causation is straightforward: it just asks whether the shootings would have happened if the parents didn’t let their son have access to the gun. Proximate causation, on the other hand, is a far more elusive concept. If the tragic deaths were not a foreseeable result of the parents’ conduct, then they might not have proximately caused them. The prosecutor will likely introduce evidence that the parents had plenty of clues that their son was dangerous. If this tragedy was foreseeable, the state will argue the parents proximately caused it.

In Michigan, manslaughter is a felony punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years in state prison. Theoretically, with four counts for each death, the parents could face a statutory maximum of 60 years, although the facts as we know them suggest this scenario is unlikely.

As a non-hunting, non-gun-owning former Michigander, I certainly don’t speak for that state’s hunting demographic. But I suspect that the hunters I know in the Wolverine State would fully support this prosecution of James and Jennifer Crumbley.

Midwestern juries recognize that lots of teens have access to firearms in the home. Most of my friends in high school could easily get their hands on a single-shot 20-gauge, and their parents knew it. Those parents weren’t grossly negligent, because their kids were responsible gun users — or more precisely, their kids gave the parents no reason to believe they were dangerous gun users. In contrast, Ethan Crumbley allegedly gave both his parents and teachers multiple reasons to believe he shouldn’t be let anywhere near a deadly weapon, from his internet search history to graphic drawings he made in class referencing violence and voices in his head.

Michigan prosecutor Karen McDonald alleges the gun used at Oxford High School was left in an unlocked drawer and easily accessible, a claim his parents’ attorneys dispute. But this case is ultimately less about how a firearm was or wasn’t secured, and more about what the parents knew about the child who had access to it.