Should parents be held accountable for their kids' gun violence?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A Michigan prosecutor on Friday filed charges against the parents of the 15-year-old suspect in last week’s high school shooting in Oxford Township, Mich., which left four students dead and seven wounded.

Jennifer and James Crumbley each face four counts of involuntary manslaughter. They are accused of giving their son, Ethan, access to a gun and failing to intervene despite signs that he may have posed a danger to those around them. “Gun owners have a responsibility. When they fail to uphold that responsibility, there are serious and criminal consequences,” Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said at a press conference Friday. Ethan Crumbley, who will be tried as an adult, faces a total of 24 charges, including murder and terrorism. All three accused have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

According to prosecutors, the Crumbleys bought the gun four days before the shooting. On social media, Ethan Crumbley called the weapon “my new beauty,” and his mother referred to it as “his new Christmas present.” McDonald also accused the parents of failing to respond to troubling behavior from their son, including a disturbing drawing of a deadly shooting he allegedly made on the morning of the masacre.

Researchers have found that between 75 percent and 80 percent of the guns used by children in school shootings are owned by the child’s parents or close relatives. Still, it’s rare for parents in these situations to be charged with a crime. There are a number of cases in which parents have been held criminally accountable after accidental shootings involving small children in the home. But legal experts say the decision to charge the Crowleys with manslaughter is virtually unprecedented.

Why there’s debate

Many gun control advocates have celebrated McDonald’s decision to charge the Crumbleys and hope it will set a precedent that requires parents to face legal consequences for failing to keep guns away from their children. Particular focus has been placed on so-called safe storage laws, which legally obligate adults to take reasonable steps to prevent kids from accessing firearms. About 20 states, including Michigan, have no such requirement, and in states that do have them, the laws are rarely enforced or carry only minor penalties.

Proponents argue that stronger safe storage laws and serious criminal penalties for parents who show extraordinary negligence will send a message to gun owners that they need to be more careful with their weapons. They say that knowledge could help prevent not only rare attacks like the Michigan school shooting, but also accidental shootings and suicides, which are more frequent.

Opposition to these ideas has emerged from both the right and the left, for dramatically different reasons. Gun rights supporters say that charging the Crumbleys infringes on their Second Amendment rights. Some conservatives have also argued that prosecutors are unfairly using the parents as a political ploy to promote a liberal agenda. Progressive criminal justice reform advocates have warned against rewriting laws in response to such an extreme case — since it’s likely that any harsher penalties will ultimately be imposed mostly on vulnerable defendants, not on people like the Crumbleys.

What’s next

The investigation into the shooting is continuing and may expand its scope to consider legal culpability for anyone else responsible, including school staff, authorities said.

Perspectives

Supporters

Gun owners should know they’ll be held accountable for how their weapons are used

“When gun right activists talk about freedom to bear weapons, they must — at the absolute very least — include the personal responsibility for how these weapons are stored. But often that’s missing from their quest to protect the Second Amendment.” — Editorial, Miami Herald

Harsher penalties for parents would save children’s lives

“Charging James and Jennifer Crumbley in this case serves as a wake-up call to parents and other gun owners that they need to be more responsible when it comes to safeguarding their weapons. McDonald's actions in this case are entirely justified — and the move to prosecute the parents could serve as a powerful warning that helps reduce the number of school shootings in this country.” — Kara Alaimo, CNN

Charging parents is extreme, but so is the American epidemic of gun violence

“If all this strikes some as overreaction, well, what else can you do but overreact? As long as America remains a place where you can’t come down hard on gun ownership, it must be a place where you come down crazy hard on protection.” — Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press

This may be one of the few gun control measures that can actually be passed

“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.” — Danny Cevallos, NBC News

It’s no violation of rights to demand that deadly weapons be kept out of the hands of children

“In a sane world, this shooting would, at a minimum, lead to stronger safe-storage laws, though Republicans in Michigan let just such a law wither without a vote this year. How a party that claims to prize the immanent value of human life when it comes to a zygote can be so ambivalent about safeguarding the lives of innocent teenagers at school is simply beyond me.” — Bret Stephens, The New York Times

Skeptics

Harsher penalties for parents would only increase racial bias in the justice system

“We should be careful about holding parents criminally liable for crimes committed by their kids. … I can assure you that the people most often targeted won't be white, NRA-loving parents in the suburbs.” — Washington Post columnist Radley Balko

There’s a major difference between morally abhorrent behavior and criminal actions

“The Crumbleys’ actions may have been stupid, immoral, or liable to civil penalties, but that’s not enough to make them crimes — however much those horrified by the latest school massacre might wish it were.” — Samuel Goldman, The Week

Ad hoc justice in the wake of a major tragedy is a betrayal of the rule of law

“We are not supposed to make criminal law by having prosecutors concoct it on the fly. We should particularly resist prosecutorial creativity in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally charged tragedy such as this one. … There is already enough tragedy here. Distorting the law to make it fit our sense of outrage can only make matters immeasurably worse in the long run.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

The real solution, as always, is tighter gun control laws

“In an ideal world, the Michigan massacre never would have happened, and Congress would have long ago passed a major bill doing everything possible to prevent such tragedies. In the real world, the best we can hope for is accountability.” — Jill Lawrence, USA Today

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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