The parents of a boy who murdered students at a Michigan high school and the father of a man who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Illinois are facing charges in the killings in what marks an uncommon move by prosecutors and raises questions about who can be held accountable for mass shootings.
It’s “incredibly unusual” for parents or guardians to be charged in relation to crimes committed by their child, said Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a criminal defense attorney and adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“It can’t be just that the parents knew, generally speaking, that this kid had violent tendencies and therefore they should be held criminally responsible,” he said. “But, in these cases, you do have facts that draw a close connection.”
The cases mark the first times parents have been charged in a mass shooting committed by their child, said James Densley, co-founder of the Violence Project, a nonprofit research center. “I can see this becoming more common if it sets a precedent,” he said.
Parents of Oxford school shooting suspect charged with involuntary manslaughter
The Michigan Court of Appeals on Thursday ordered the parents of the 15-year-old who murdered four students and injured seven others at Oxford High School in Michigan to stand trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the November 2021 shooting.
Prosecutors say James and Jennifer Crumbley should have forseen the massacre and intervened to stop it. They bought their son the gun used in the shooting despite knowing he was struggling mentally, and they were called to the school the morning of the shooting over a troubling drawing but didn’t bring him home.
“Despite their knowledge of all of these circumstances, when given the option to help (their son) and take him out of school, the defendants did nothing,” the appeals court wrote.
Defense attorneys say the Crumbleys had no idea their son would carry out a mass shooting and made bad decisions but should not be held criminally liable.
In charging the Crumbleys weeks after the shooting, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald acknowledged charges are not often brought against parents in other school shooting cases.
“I am by no means saying that an active shooter situation should always result in a criminal prosecution against parents,” she said at the time. “But the facts of this case are so egregious.”
Father of Highland Park parade shooting suspect charged with reckless conduct
Last month, years after the initial charges against the Crumbleys, an Illinois grand jury formally indicted the father of the 21-year-old man charged with fatally shooting seven people at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park last summer.
The indictment charges Robert Crimo Jr., 58, with seven counts of reckless conduct. Prosecutors say he took a “reckless and unjustified risk” when he signed the application for his son’s firearm owners ID card in 2019 despite knowing his son’s mental state.
Earlier this year, Crimo’s defense attorney, George Gomez, described the charges as “baseless and unprecedented.”
“This decision should alarm every single parent in the United States of America who according to the Lake County State’s Attorney knows exactly what is going on with their 19-year-old adult children and can be held criminally liable for actions taken nearly three years later,” Gomez said in a statement.
When have parents been charged in mass shootings?
Mass shootings by minors are relatively infrequent, and so are prosecutions of parents or guardians, according to gun safety advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. In many cases, youth shooters target family members.
In 2014, a 15-year-old used his father’s gun to fatally shoot four classmates and himself at Marysville-Pilchuk High School in Washington. The father was later convicted of illegally possessing firearms in violation of a domestic violence protection order.
That case was “different” because the parent faced illegal gun charges, Densley said, as opposed to involuntary manslaughter, which “implies greater parental culpability.”
In 2018, a 17-year-old used his parents’ firearms to kill eight students and two teachers at Sante Fe High School in Texas. But his parents couldn’t be charged under Texas’ safe storage law because it only applies to children under 17. Instead, victims’ families sued the parents.
When have parents been charged in school shootings?
Beyond mass shootings, parents or guardians have been charged in school shootings in the past. Out of 105 school shootings through 2018, four adults were convicted and punished for the shooters’ access to firearms, the Washington Post found.
The investigation found that 80% of weapons in school shootings, where the source of the weapon was identified, were taken from home or a relative or friend.
That’s why gun safety advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action call on school districts across the country to send home information on secure firearm storage.
“We see time and time again that when adults don’t prevent their kids from accessing guns, tragedy can happen,” said Shannon Watts, group founder. “At the end of the day, it’s always the responsibility of adults to keep guns securely stored and out of reach.”
There have been a handful of other prosecutions in recent years:
- In 2019, prosecutors charged two parents with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a fourth-degree felony, after their son shot a gun inside his New Mexico high school, local outlets reported.
- In 2020, prosecutors charged an Indiana woman with four felony counts of neglect of a dependent after her 14-year-old son shot his way into his middle school before shooting himself.
- In 2022, prosecutors charged a woman with misdemeanor counts of child endangerment after a gun inside the backpack of her 7-year-old discharged in a Chicago classroom, wounding another second-grader, local outlets reported.
Parents or guardians have also faced charges in unintentional shootings by children, but an investigation by USA TODAY and the Associated Press found that charges are rare and not consistently applied.
Who is to blame? Justice is haphazard after kids’ gun deaths
Setting a precedent?
It’s unclear if the charges against the parents in the Michigan and Illinois mass shootings mark the beginning of a trend, experts say. Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown, said the charges put parents on notice.
“Hopefully, prosecutions send a message to parents that, if you opt to keep a gun in your home, you have a responsibility to your family and the community to keep it securely stored,” he said.
Contributing: Ryan W. Miller and Celina Tebor, USA TODAY