Prosecutors in Michigan took a rare step on Friday by filing involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents of the 15-year-old accused of fatally shooting four students in the halls of Oxford High School, saying that they had bought the semiautomatic handgun that he used to carry out the deadly rampage as a Christmas gift.
Karen D. McDonald, the prosecutor in Oakland County, detailed a litany of missed opportunities to prevent the shooting as she spoke at a news conference announcing four manslaughter charges each against the gunman’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley.
On the morning of the Nov. 30 shooting, the suspect’s parents were urgently called into the high school after one of his teachers found an alarming note he had drawn, scrawled with images of a gun, a person who had been shot, and the words, “Blood everywhere,” and, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
The day before the shooting, a teacher had seen the suspect searching online for ammunition for the gun in class, which led to a meeting with school officials, the prosecutor said. After being informed by the school about their son’s behavior, Jennifer Crumbley texted to her son: “LOL, I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” Ms. McDonald said.
School officials told the parents during the in-person meeting on Tuesday that they were required to seek counseling for their son, Ethan, Ms. McDonald said. The teenager’s parents did not want their son to be removed from school that day, and did not ask him whether he had the gun with him or search the backpack he brought with him to the office, Ms. McDonald said.
“The notion that a parent could read those words and also know their son had access to a deadly weapon, that they gave him, is unconscionable and I think it’s criminal. It is criminal,” she said.
Ms. McDonald said the teenager’s parents had been storing the newly purchased 9-millimeter Sig Sauer pistol unlocked in a bedroom drawer.
At about 12:50 p.m. that day, law-enforcement authorities said, Ethan Crumbley walked into a bathroom carrying his backpack and emerged armed with the handgun and began to shoot.
“There was absolute reason to believe this individual was dangerous and disturbed,” the prosecutor said, adding, “Four kids were murdered and seven more injured, so yes, we should all be very angry.”
The suspect fired more than 30 rounds before he was apprehended. The slain students were identified as Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Justin Shilling, 17; and Hana St. Juliana, 14. Seven other people were wounded.
Although many underage school shooters arm themselves with guns from home, the adults responsible for the weapons are rarely charged, experts say.
Many states, including Michigan, do not have laws requiring guns to be locked away, and experts say prosecuting a gunman’s family members in the raw aftermath of a mass shooting can raise divisive questions pitting Second Amendment rights against gun safety.
When Ms. McDonald announced a litany of charges that included terrorism — rare in school shooting cases — against the suspect the day after the rampage at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit, she made a point to say she was also considering charging his parents.
“Owning a gun means securing it properly and locking it and keeping the ammunition separate and not allowing access to other individuals, particularly minors,” Ms. McDonald said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We have to hold individuals accountable who don’t do that.”
A lawyer for Ethan Crumbley pleaded not guilty on his behalf this week.
Investigators say the teenager talked about his desire and plans to kill classmates at Oxford in two cellphone videos and a journal they found in his backpack.
Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County said that Oxford school officials had spoken twice to the suspect about concerns over his classroom behavior — once the day before the shooting, and again that morning. But the superintendent of the Oxford school district said the suspect did not have a disciplinary record at the high school, and said the concerns about his behavior did not lead to any punishment.
“No discipline was warranted,” Tim Throne, superintendent of the Oxford Community Schools, said in a YouTube video posted on Thursday.
Gun control advocates have argued for more prosecutions of adults when their weapons fall into the hands of children, leading to suicides, accidental deaths or intentional school shootings. But legal experts say a patchwork of state laws — some stringent and some lax — regulating gun storage and children’s access to weapons can pose a hurdle to prosecutions.
Kris Brown, president of the gun control group Brady United, said that Michigan, unlike nearly 30 other states, did not have what was known as a child-access prevention law requiring adults to keep any guns in their home out of the reach of children.
“The idea is that if you have a kid in the home, even if it is not your own kid, any firearm needs to be stored safely — which means unloaded, locked and separated from any ammunition,” Ms. Brown said.
States like California and New York set tougher safety standards for gun owners while more gun-friendly states in the Southeast impose penalties only if a child actually obtains or fires a gun.
“Michigan doesn’t have a strong law or a weak law,” Ms. Brown said. “It has no law on this.”
Parents across the country have been charged with child abuse, violating gun laws and even negligent manslaughter after their young children accidentally shoot themselves or other children. But gun control experts said Ms. McDonald’s move to charge the parents of a mass shooting suspect was almost unheard-of.
“I can’t think of a high-profile mass shooting where the parents were prosecuted,” said Allison Anderman, director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In western Kentucky, there were calls three years ago to prosecute the stepfather of a 15-year-old school shooter after the authorities learned the teenage gunman had obtained his stepfather’s handgun from an unlocked bedroom closet.
But the local prosecutor, Dennis Foust, decided he could not make a case against the stepfather. Kentucky law makes it a crime to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” provide a handgun to a minor — a high standard to prove. Mr. Foust said the stepfather did not know the gun was gone until questioned by investigators after the shooting.
“I’m a firm believer in gun responsibility, but we just didn’t see there was enough there,” he said.
Mr. Foust said that local law enforcement also opposed charging the stepfather with a crime and wanted to keep the focus of the prosecution squarely on the gunman, who is serving a life sentence after killing two classmates.
“There needs to be accountability,” Mr. Foust said. “But under our situation, we weren’t able to do that. I don’t know that society, at least here, would effect sufficient change to be able to prosecute a parent.”
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