Guns v money: the grim calculus that could shift the dial on America’s real life school shooting horror movie

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
The case of a US mother found guilty of involuntary manslaughter following her son's mass shooting has been praised by gun control advocates.
The case of a US mother found guilty of involuntary manslaughter following her son's mass shooting has been praised by gun control advocates. Credit: William Pearce/The Nightly

School shootings are so common in America that foreign journalists based there quickly develop a grim calculus when deciding if they are significant enough to warrant the expense of travelling to another city to cover one.

Huge numbers, tiny victims, shooters on the loose or maybe a female offender? These are the dark factoids that decide how much prominence the often daily events garner for Australian audiences and readers.

Now we have a bizarre new element to ponder from the safety of our lucky country, with a US court finding the mother of a school shooter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for failing to stop her teenage son from murdering four classmates.

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Jennifer Crumbley is awaiting sentencing after a two-week trial that heard she and her husband not only let their deeply disturbed then 15-year-old own a gun, but that they ignored chilling warning signs about his intended actions.

This ranged from teaching Ethan to shoot with a gun they gave him as an early Christmas present and ignoring his pleas for help with his mental health to finally - on the morning that he gunned down his classmates - cutting short a meeting at Oxford High School in Michigan where teachers warned them about a disturbing drawing he had done.

They went to work and left him at school with a gun in his bag. Hours later Ethan, now 17 and serving a life sentence, committed one of two mass murders recorded in the US on November 30, 2021.

Facing a potential 15 years for each charge, Jennifer Crumbley was tried separately from her husband, who faces court later this year, and her February 7 guilty verdict was the first for a parent facing such charges.

Gun control advocates immediately celebrated the verdict, with prominent Everytown spokesman Nick Suplina saying it “underscores the important responsibility of parents and gun owners in preventing children from having unsupervised access to deadly weapons”.

Jennifer Crumbley leaves the Oakland County courtroom after being found guilty on four counts involuntary manslaughter in the Oakland County courtroom of Cheryl Matthews on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.  Prosecutors say Crumbley was grossly negligent when she failed to tell Oxford High School that the family had guns, including a 9 mm handgun that her son, Ethan Crumbley, used at a shooting range on the weekend before the Nov. 30, 2021, attack.  (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press via AP, Pool)
Jennifer Crumbley leaves the Oakland County courtroom after being found guilty on four counts involuntary manslaughter. Credit: Mandi Wright/AP

“Plain and simple, the deadly shooting at Oxford High School in 2021 should have - and could have - been prevented had the Crumbley’s not acquired a gun for their 15-year-old son,” he said in a statement

“This decision is an important step forward in ensuring accountability and, hopefully, preventing future tragedies.”

But American law professor Eve Brensike Primus from the University of Michigan told The New York Times the verdict wasn’t as legally significant as some pundits had labelled it.

“I have heard many people say they think a guilty verdict in this case will open the floodgates to these kinds of prosecutions going forward. To be honest, I’m not convinced that’s true,” she said, adding that the overwhelming evidence of Crumbley’s bad mothering made the case unique.

While it’s tantalising to hope that punishing bad parents for not controlling their murderous kids might be just what America needs, Sydney-based US expert David Smith said he wasn’t sure the case would shift the dial, given the sheer number of weapons in America.

“I’m afraid that what this case is doing is putting the responsibility for the crime onto a parent, rather than on the system that allows people to buy guns as easily as it does,” Associate Professor Smith from the United States Study Centre said.

“There is a different between the US and Australia and it’s not necessarily that Americans are more violent, or that there’s some huge number of homicidal people. It’s that there are so many guns.”

However, again, there could be some hope that grim stateside calculus of guns vs money may come into play in the courts.

The potential of costly civil action against parents may “prompt a little bit more parental responsibility”, said Prof. Smith.

But it was discouraging that efforts to hold gun manufacturers liable for crimes committed with their weapons had so far failed.

“One of the things in America is that even as public opinion has moved more in favour of gun control, the legal framework in the United States, is, if anything, moving further in the other direction,” he said.

“But this is a country where there is a gun called a Crickett, which is sold in blue for boys and pink for girls and marketed specifically for children.

“I really struggle to be optimistic about this.”

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