Prosecuting Ethan Crumbley’s parents over the Oxford school shooting is an admission of failure

Two more individuals can be held up to public scrutiny so everyone else can ignore the system

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Tuesday 07 December 2021 21:25
Artist claims he didn't know Crumbleys were wanted at time of helping them
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After a Michigan high school sophomore shot four people at his school, prosecutors made the unusual decision to charge his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, with involuntary manslaughter. The reflexively pro-gun right, epitomized by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, quickly declared this a politically motivated leftist tactic.

In fact, though, the decision to charge the parents is a depressing admission of failure in the face of right-wing opposition to common sense efforts to reduce gun violence. Thanks to rabid right-wing gun absolutism, gun control advocates have run out of workable tactics. They are left with inadequate carceral approaches that barely pretend to try to reduce violence.

There’s no special mystery to America’s gun violence epidemic. The US has some of the most lenient gun laws in the world, and the highest rates of gun ownership: 120.5 guns per 100 residents. That’s more than twice the rate of the second-highest country, Yemen, with 52.8 guns per 100 people.

As a result, the US has phenomenal rates of gun violence. It has the second-highest number of gun deaths in the world, after Brazil, and the second-highest rate of firearm-related suicide after Greenland. Its rate of violent gun deaths is 12.21 per 100,000 people, outstripping southern neighbor Mexico’s rate of 7.64, and far outstripping northern neighbor Canada’s 2.05.

There are plenty of straightforward solutions to America’s disproportionate and tragic firearms death toll. In 1996, Australia banned numerous rifles and shotguns, required registration of all firearms, and instituted an ambitious buyback program to remove weapons from circulation. Firearm violence fell quickly — firearm suicides, for example, dropped from 2.6 per 100,000 in 1996 to 1.3 per 100,000 in 1998, while homicides fell from 0.4 to 0.3 per 100,000. Rates have continued to fall (in 2013 firearm suicides were 0.72 per 100,000.)

Because of right political opposition, the US has struggled to institute similar reforms at the national level. More, in 2008, a conservative Supreme Court put severe limits on the ability of localities to ban classes of firearms or to even mandate the disassembling of weapons for storage. Some municipalities, struggling to limit gun deaths, had experimented with suing gun manufacturers for selling unsafe products. But that avenue too was closed down by Congress in 2005 with a law that specially prevented lawsuits against gun manufacturers when their products were used in crimes.

Gun suicides, gun homicides, and mass shootings occur with numbing regularity in the US — and the last of those have even been on the rise lately. Right-wing politicians have made sure nothing useful can be done about them. But there’s a huge incentive to try to address the problem. Which leads local prosecutors to try to sue parents like the Crumbleys.

I’ll leave it to experts to weigh in on whether the Crumbleys are legally negligent or not, but one thing is clear: There is evidence that weapon bans and buyback programs can reduce gun violence. There is no evidence that charging parents after mass shootings will do the same.

There isn’t even a reasonable theory as to how charging parents would reduce violence. Parents already have major incentives to prevent their children from committing mass violence — not least that parents themselves are at serious risk if they are living with someone who decides to start shooting those nearby. Will the threat of possible criminal charges make parents suddenly decide their child is a threat? It seems unlikely.

Charging the Crumbleys is unlikely to deter anyone or to prevent other shootings. The only reason to punish the Crumbleys is to punish them. Two more individuals can be held up to public scrutiny so everyone else can ignore the system.

Criminal justice in America generally focuses on punishment rather than on prevention or harm reduction. The right, in particular, is eager to fund prisons and police, and reluctant to fund or promote investments in the social safety net, mental health resources, lead abatement, or expanded healthcare coverage. Their stubborn refusal to countenance restrictions on gun manufacturers or background checks, or even to acknowledge that high rates of gun ownership create a dangerous potential for violence, is of a piece.

In this case, the right’s gun obsession trumps its rage for incarceration. But that oddity shouldn’t eclipse the glum truth that whether or not the Crumbleys are convicted, anyone who cares about reducing gun violence has already lost. Hopefully at some point progressives can gather the political strength needed to put in place gun reforms that will lead to less injury and less death. But charging the Crumbleys isn’t going to do it.

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