The Crumbley case — who else should go to jail?

James Crumbley addresses the courtduring his sentencing, April 9, 2024.

Share This Post

Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, who killed four students in a 2021 school shooting in Oxford, Mich., were each sentenced April 9 to 10-15 years in prison, weeks after being convicted of manslaughter. They are the first parents to be held criminally responsible for a mass school shooting committed by their child.

School employees, Ethan and his parents met on the morning of the shooting after he made disturbing writings on a math worksheet. The employees recommended the parents immediately take him out of class and get him mental health treatment, but they declined to do so. Two hours later, Ethan opened fire with his parents’ handgun stashed in his bag.

To make sense of all this, I use law enforcement’s crime prevention triangle that states that three things must exist for a crime to be committed: motivation, ability and opportunity. All three are undeniably different but equally important causes of criminal behavior. All three need to be present in a criminal act.

“Gun rights” conservatives are apt to blame gun violence on untreated mental illness. They say things like: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Thus, young Ethan had the motivation for what happened on that fateful day, so therefore he must accept full responsibility for his actions. Indeed, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

“Gun control” liberals are apt to blame gun violence on easy access to guns. They say things like: “Yes, people pull the trigger. But guns are the instruments of death.”Thus, the Crumbleys gave their son the ability to commit murder. So therefore they must accept full responsibility for their inaction. They will be spending time behind bars as well.

“Anti-gun violence” moderates, who balance responsible gun ownership with public safety, are apt to blame gun violence on absent law enforcement. They say things like: “The police were called. But too little, too late.” Thus, the opportunity for the shooting came and went with the arrest of Ethan. The police also arrested the Crumbley parents for involuntary manslaughter.

It was only natural that everyone pointed fingers throughout this whole situation without taking responsibility for anything. The parents blamed their child. “It’s the kid’s fault. He pulled the trigger.” People blamed the parents. “They got the kid a gun! They wouldn’t get him help!” And the police could only say: “Don’t blame us! We can only arrest them.”

Ultimately, the whole thing could have been averted. Why did the school not take Ethan out of class unilaterally? By doing so, that might have removed the opportunity to commit a school shooting. Because Ethan would no longer be in the classroom with his classmates, waiting for the perfect chance to open fire. The shooting would just not have been possible.

We could not have expected Ethan, a minor, to ask for treatment himself. And his parents abdicated responsibility since they declined to do so themselves, saying they had “to work.” If school officials had taken Ethan out of class and got him mental health treatment, the school would have removed his motivation to commit a mass shooting.

And chances are that if the school had removed Ethan from the classroom and got him some mental health treatment, there might have been a chance to confiscate the gun that Ethan had stashed in his backpack, thereby quashing the ability to commit a mass shooting. For example, the school would have required Ethan to set his belongings aside to get help.

So several critical junctures passed that could have prevented this horrific act. Yes, it was repugnant that Jennifer and James were so delinquent in their parental duties. And Ethan should have gotten help and was not accorded any. But school officials need to think more clearly about their own role — or lack thereof — in all this. Maybe somebody else should go to jail as well.

More To Explore

Man with gun in wasteband.

Gun rights, gun control, gun violence

An Illinois federal judge recently ruled that the Constitution protects the gun rights of noncitizens who enter the U.S. illegally. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon