The muzzle of a shotgun barrel on display at the 2023 NRA Annual Meeting
The muzzle of a shotgun barrel on display at the 2023 NRA Annual Meeting / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: The Implications of the Jennifer Crumbley Conviction [Member Exclusive]

This week saw a potential landmark ruling holding a parent responsible for a mass shooting carried out by their child.

Jennifer Crumbley, whose son murdered four fellow students at his Michigan high school in May 2021, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday. The jury held her responsible for the killings not because she actively planned or participated in them but because she didn’t do enough to stop them. The decision represents the first time a jury has held a parent responsible for a school shooting they weren’t actively involved in.

It raises a host of questions for gun owners and parents across the country.

The most immediate: is the verdict the product of the uniquely egregious facts of this case, or does it speak to a larger emerging trend?

Anyone who watched the trial knows that Mrs. Crumbley did not make for an especially sympathetic defendant. With Americans, and likely many jurors, exhausted by the frequency of school shootings, she did little to express contrition or regret. She even testified she wouldn’t have done things differently in retrospect–a bizarre thing to say after your child murders four other children.

The facts of what happened in the lead-up to the shooting didn’t help make her more sympathetic either. Her son displayed signs of severe mental health issues, including texts to her about seeing ghosts that went unanswered. But she didn’t get him mental health treatment.

When the school called in her and her husband because their son drew disturbing images and wrote concerning messages on a worksheet indicating he was a danger to himself or others, they decided not to take him to receive immediate help because they didn’t want to miss work. Instead, they sent him back to class. Incredibly, Jennifer Crumbley described that fateful meeting as “nonchalant.”

Later that same day, he took a handgun out of his bag and used it to shoot his classmates.

And, of course, that handgun was one she and her husband bought for him. The foreman of the jury said the idea Jennifer was the last one to handle the gun before her son took it was a significant factor in their decision. It’s still unclear exactly how he got that gun. But her testimony that she didn’t feel she was responsible for the gun because that was her husband’s role likely didn’t help her either.

Would the jury have convicted her of criminal negligence if all those factors weren’t present at once (especially the egregious inaction during the meeting shortly before the shooting)? Or does this mean that juries will now hold parents liable for violence committed by their children if only one of those factors is present?

Should parents be held liable for their child carrying out a shooting purely if they do it with a gun that wasn’t properly secured? And what level of security would be necessary in a scenario like that? Jennifer Crumbley testified that they did take steps to lock up their various guns, including the one they bought for their son to use with them at the range.

She didn’t seem to know the full details and felt she shouldn’t be responsible for them because she viewed it as her husband’s role, which is probably a fairly common view for a lot of gun-owning households. It’s a wrongheaded view since adults ought to be responsible for the guns in their homes, but it’s probably not rare.

It’s important to note that there’s a world of difference between securing a gun from a small, curious child and a determined teenager. Jennifer Crumbley alluded to the possibility that her son knew where they stored the key to the handgun’s lock, which indicates they weren’t very diligent in their security efforts.

But what happens if somebody is diligent and their child manages to get ahold of their gun anyway? Will they be held to the same standard? Where does that line fall?

What about the mental health side of the equation? Jennifer Crumbley said she didn’t think the red flags brought up in retrospect were significant at the time. She said the disturbing messages brought to her attention shortly before the shooting weren’t pressing enough to take immediate action, which the school officials apparently agreed with.

Maybe the signs in the Crumbley’s case were so evident that it was negligent not to follow through on them with treatment. What happens if the signs are a bit less conspicuous? Can parents be held responsible for not getting their children the right treatment at exactly the right time? Where is that line?

This case could inspire lawmakers to try to draw those lines more definitively through things like gun storage laws. But, given the politicized nature of the gun debate, especially at the state level, that’s unlikely to happen outside of blue states. And even there, it could be difficult since storage laws tend to be controversial for taking a one-size-fits-all approach that deprioritizes the use of guns for self-defense–the top reason most Americans own guns in the first place.

The more common way we’ll likely see these lines tested in the wake of Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction is through prosecutors pursuing similar charges. The outcome in this case will probably embolden prosecutors to go after parents of other mass shooters and lower-profile killers.

The first test of how broad the implications of the verdict against Jennifer will come in the form of the case against her husband, James Crumbley. That trial is scheduled to begin in March. How it goes may determine how much more frequent these sorts of cases become.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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