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What parents with firearms need to know about Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction

Parents have previously been criminally charged over the crimes of their children, but, usually, that’s only happened when the parent intended for the child to commit the crimes.

After a Michigan jury convicted Jennifer Crumbley of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with her son’s 2021 shooting rampage at Oxford High School, many have asked if a “precedent” has been set for holding parents criminally responsible for their children’s crimes.

It has, and it hasn’t.

A jury’s verdict doesn’t really create any legal precedent. It’s just a finding of fact by the jury.

A jury’s verdict doesn’t really create any legal precedent. It’s just a finding of fact by the jury, which is then applied to the law as told to them by the court. In fact, a verdict may be overturned by an appellate court. In doing so, that court might then create legal precedent by striking down the verdict on an issue of law. But a verdict is just one jury’s take on the facts.

Traditionally, parents have not been automatically deemed liable for the wrongdoing of their children. But there have been times when a court has said they can be. In 1998, for example, a Kansas court concluded that the father of a minor who shot another child could be found liable (in civil court) for negligently entrusting the handgun to his son. (It's unclear how that case turned out.)

And, although rare, parents have been criminally charged over the crimes of their children, too. But, usually, that’s only happened when evidence shows the parent intended for the child to commit the crimes. As far back as 1869, a Vermont court found a father guilty for his minor daughter’s burglary. But in that case, the father intended for his child’s crime to happen: He gave her the tools and coerced her into committing the crime.

The Crumbley case represents the next stage in the evolution of parental liability: criminal liability for a child’s crimes — crimes that the parent did not intend to happen.

Ethan Crumbley was 15 on Nov. 30, 2021, when he fatally shot Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17, and?wounded seven others. He pleaded guilty, and in December, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for what a judge called a “true act of terrorism.”

As they did with Jennifer Crumbley, 45, prosecutors also charged her husband and the father of their child, 47-year-old James Crumbley, with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. The father’s trial is set to begin next month.

Is the Crumbley case a warning to all parents with firearms in the home that they will be held responsible for all crimes committed by their children, no matter how well the parents secure the gun? Definitely not. The more targeted message is probably that parents who give their children access to firearms have to secure those firearms and can’t ignore signs of mental illness.

The more targeted message is probably that parents who give their children access to firearms have to secure those firearms and can’t ignore signs of mental illness.

Jennifer Crumbley testified that some of these red flags (such as her son reportedly thinking their house was haunted) she took as him joking around. The jury obviously saw it differently. Perhaps the verdict means that when there are children and firearms in the home, less joking around will be tolerated. Maybe the message is that an introverted child’s reports of seeing ghosts in a house with guns have to be taken seriously, whereas in a non-gun household, maybe they can be brushed off. It’s hard to say.

According to the jury foreperson in Jennifer Crumbley case, the jurors focused on the fact that Crumbley was the last person with access to the firearm. In light of all the incriminating text messages, I was surprised that that was deemed critical fact to the jury. But juries always have interesting insights into the case — you can never predict which piece of evidence they will seize upon.

The trend nationwide seems to be that when it comes to school shootings, we’re willing to cast aside traditional notions of parental liability. That is, when it comes to school shootings, we are ready to scrutinize parents in a way that may depart from traditional notions of criminal responsibility.

The Crumbley case doesn’t set a legal precedent, but it sets a cultural precedent, and a narrow, targeted message to parents who fail to safely monitor their child’s access to firearms.

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