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How Jennifer Crumbley’s case could change America’s response to mass shootings

Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of Oxford High School shooter Ethan Crumbley, enters the court to hear the verdict just before the jury found her guilty on four counts of involuntary manslaughter on at Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan, U.S. February 6, 2024.   Mandi Wright/USA Today Network via REUTERS.    NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT (via REUTERS)

Manuel Oliver says Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction is something to “celebrate”.

“I do think — and I hope — that this will start a new wave of accountability that expands to anyone that is somehow responsible,” he tells The Independent.

To him, as the father of Joaquin Oliver, who was killed in the Parkland mass school shooting, the conviction of the mother of a school shooter marks something of a turning point.

It suggests that “we’re looking at these [cases] in a new way,” he says.

No one is “complaining about the verdict”, he adds. “So we all agree, all gun owners…and of course, people like me” that Crumbley “is responsible in some way.”

In a landmark case on Tuesday, Crumbley was found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter after her son, Ethan Crumbley, opened fire inside Oxford High School in November 2021, killing four of his classmates and injuring seven other victims.

It’s an outcome that is pushing new bounds as to how gun owners can be held responsible for others’ fatal actions and set a new precedent for how mass shooters’ parents — and other actors — are held accountable.

A landmark case

Never before had a parent been tried for their alleged involvement in a mass school shooting.

A judge for Michigan’s appellate court acknowledged the historic nature of this case in his opinion ruling that the Crumbleys should stand trial: “Our legal system does not, nor should it, criminally punish people for subpar, odd, or eccentric parenting…However, before us is the unusual case.”

Ethan Crumbley “was extraordinarily troubled, yet defendants nonetheless provided him with a handgun and, despite having discrete, disturbing evidence that [their son] contemplated harming others, did nothing when confronted with that evidence.”

The prosecution argued that Ms Crumbley could have taken “tragically small” steps that would have prevented the shooting, which the state described as “foreseeable.” Instead, the prosecutors argued, she ignored her son’s mental health struggles and made the 9mm handgun — purchased four days before the shooting — accessible.

The jury agreed.

Now, Crumbley is the first parent to have been convicted for her alleged role in a mass school shooting. Her husband, James Crumbley, could soon be the second as he is facing the same charges at his trial in March.

While the verdict in this case may be unprecedented, the events that led to this point are far from it.

School shootings are all too common across America, with more than 340 school shootings in 2023 alone, according to the K-12 School Shooting database.

Tragically, then, it’s not too surprising that firearms are the leading cause of death of children in the United States.

With gun violence a devastating, yet common part of life, it’s perhaps unsurprising that attention is turning to holding accountable people beyond those who pulled the trigger.

Parents held to account

In recent years, several other parents have faced criminal charges after their child committed a shooting.

Deja Taylor, the mother of a six-year-old boy who shot his first grade teacher in Virginia, was sentenced to 21 months in prison in November after she pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm while being a drug user and lying on a background check about her marijuana use when she bought the gun which was later used by her son.

“That is my son, so I am, as a parent, obviously willing to take responsibility for him — because he can’t take responsibility for himself,” she told a court in June.

That same month, Robert Crimo Jr, the father of the 21-year-old Highland Park shooter accused of killing seven and injuring dozens of others in an attack on a July 4 parade, pleaded guilty to seven counts of misdemeanour reckless conduct as part of a plea bargain.

Though similar, neither of these cases set the same precedent as Crumbley’s.

Unlike these parents, Crumbley pleaded not guilty, went to trial and was convicted.

But, more significantly, Crumbley was hit with manslaughter charges – raising the bar for what parents can be criminally charged with in connection to their child’s actions.

Under Michigan law, an involuntary manslaughter conviction means that Crumbley has been found to have either caused the victims’ deaths by acting in a grossly negligent manner or by failing to perform a legal duty.

Throughout her trial, Crumbley’s defence attorney tried to argue that her client wasn’t familiar with guns and even told the court that her 15-year-old son showed her how to use the firearm when she took him to a shooting range just before the massacre.

Still, the jury foreperson told CNN that the conviction hinged on the fact that Crumbley was the “the last adult with the gun”.

Through this case, Erin Davis, senior counsel at Brady United Against Gun Violence, tells The Independent that prosecutors have sent a “really powerful message” to parents, gun sellers, and schools – signalling that “they have a responsibility to be part of the solution and take action in situations that are avoidable, versus turning a blind eye”.

Making gun owners part of the solution

In that same vein, the Crumbley case underscores the responsibility – and criminal responsibility – of gun owners to commit to proper gun safety practices, by bringing gun owners in as “part of the solution” to stopping these preventable tragedies, Ms Davis says.

As Mr Oliver says: “What happened yesterday is a great way of convincing people that if your gun is not in a safe place, you can end up in jail — even if you don’t use the gun. People should be responsible.”

At a time when many gun owners are voicing fears that their Second Amendment right is under threat, emphasising gun safety — through holding irresponsible gun owners accountable — could be a way to find common ground in the gun control debate.

“Most gun owners are responsible gun owners and understand that it’s important to follow safe practices,” like ensuring that their guns are stored securely and that children don’t have access to them, Ms Davis adds.

Beyond the parents

Beyond parents, several ongoing and settled civil suits are also testing how others connected to mass shootings can be held accountable.

Parents of an Oxford High School student who was injured in the mass shooting filed a civil suit against school officials and the gun store that sold the Crumbley family the would-be murder weapon for negligence.

Meanwhile, survivors of the Uvalde mass shooting have filed a class-action lawsuit against the school district, the city of Uvalde, and law enforcement agencies seeking $27bn in damages.

Families of victims in the 2012 Sandy Hook and Poway synagogue shootings sued gun manufacturers for violating consumer-protection laws; both cases resulted in massive settlements. A survivor of the Highland Park shooting is now seeking to do the same.

As more tragedies occur, survivors and victims’ families are finding more ways to hold those surrounding the shootings accountable.

But, while it’s been done before in some senses, Crumbley’s case appears to be a watershed moment.

“There should be accountability for different actors that have contributed to shootings and mass shootings,” Ms Davis says.

However, bringing criminal cases against actors beyond the shooter is a “newer” move.

For Mr Oliver, he is hopeful that the verdict is a sign of things to come.

He says that, hopefully, the verdict “will become a small step in our fight to end gun violence in the United States.”