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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Crisp: Who’s to blame for shootings?

By John M. Crisp
Published: April 16, 2024, 6:01am

Perhaps you can imagine punishments more to be feared than a lengthy prison sentence, but in a country that proscribes cruel and unusual punishment — except the death penalty — the only thing I can think of that would be worse than confinement in prison is confinement as the result of a crime that I did not commit.

This is the situation in which Jennifer and James Crumbley find themselves. Last week they were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison on four counts of involuntary manslaughter. But the crime that instigated the charges against them was committed by their son, Ethan Crumbley, who in 2021 murdered four classmates at his high school in Oxford, Mich.

I bear no particular sympathy for the Crumbleys, but is this right? Our nation is increasingly frustrated by an endless series of school shootings. We’re looking desperately for someone to blame for a problem that we can’t solve. Could the Crumbleys be merely attractive targets of opportunity?

By all accounts, they were hardly model parents. Prosecutors accuse them of indifference to their son’s mounting mental problems. As an early Christmas present, the Crumbleys gave Ethan the 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun that he used in the shooting. Jennifer Crumbley even took her son to a shooting range to practice.

But the case is more complicated than it appears on its surface. My appreciation of its nuance relies on a writer who knows more about it than I do. Megan Stack, an opinion writer for The New York Times, listened to many hours of pretrial and trial testimony in the case against Jennifer Crumbley, and in a Feb. 1 column she describes the inconsistencies, ambiguities and occasional irrelevancies that prosecutors used to cast Crumbley in the worst possible light without proving — to Stack’s satisfaction, at least — that Crumbley was criminally responsible for an act committed by her son.

It’s beyond the scope of this column to recapitulate Stack’s arguments beyond noting that she points out an ironic fact: Prosecutors insisted on trying Ethan — who was 15 at the time of the shootings — as an adult, implying that he was fully responsible for his actions. In fact, he pleaded guilty, with this self-assessment: “I am a really bad person.” He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Certainly, criminal negligence on the part of the parents could have contributed to this tragedy; I’ll leave it to Stack to undercut that argument. But it’s important to acknowledge the background against which any accusations against the Crumbleys must be evaluated:

Our nation has a perverse and unprecedented passion for firearms. We are mesmerized by their power and the power we imagine that they bestow on us. They are fundamental to our entertainment. The next time you go to the movies, count the number of weapons discharged during the trailers. Observe the video games your children are playing.

We have many millions more firearms in civilian possession than we have people in our country. We’ve come to believe that they are essential to safety even as they kill many times more of us than in any other nation.

It’s not hard to see why young males who are troubled, insecure and unbalanced will look to firearms as a source of power and validation or as the most effective method to wreak revenge for their alienated lives. Thus, mass killings and school shootings are almost inevitable, and they continue to plague us.

We look for people to blame or to solve the problem. If we apprehend the shooters before they kill themselves, we punish them harshly, even if they’re only 15. We imagine that counselors and school administrators might help. We hope our lawmakers will do something to remedy this catastrophe, but they are completely ineffectual.

But if you imagine that this problem can be solved with better parenting, you’ve got more confidence in human agency than I have. In the meantime, if sending the Crumbleys to prison for 15 years makes us feel better, fine. Will it reduce school shootings? Do not count on it.