Conviction of Michigan Parents Lays Groundwork for New Gun Violence Prevention Measures


Erin Butler



Gun Safety

Placing a gun in a gun safe.
CREDIT: Shutterstock/M-Production

Two Michigan parents were sentenced Tuesday after they each received unprecedented guilty verdicts in separate trials earlier this year. Each parent was tried on four counts of involuntary manslaughter for their alleged role in a mass shooting their then-15-year-old son committed at his high school in 2021. Their son has already pleaded guilty to charges of first-degree murder and terrorism causing death and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in December 2023. This week, they were each sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison after juries determined they grossly neglected their duties to attend to their son’s mental health and prevent him from accessing the firearms in their home.

The parents were the first in United States history to face charges alleging that their grossly negligent parenting allowed their child to commit a mass school shooting, and the historic trials were made possible only after a lengthy court battle that culminated in a decision from the Michigan Supreme Court last fall to send the parents to trial. The trials themselves have served as an example of how state courts can interpret state laws to curb gun violence in the wake of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that has gutted the legislative restrictions states traditionally used to prevent people who should not have firearms from accessing them.

The Tragic, Preventable Shooting

On November 30, 2021, Ethan Crumbley emerged from a boys’ bathroom at Oxford High School armed with a semi-automatic handgun and began shooting. In a matter of minutes, he killed four of his fellow students, injured six other students and a teacher, and was arrested without incident when law enforcement entered the school.

In the hours and days after the shooting, the actions of Ethan’s parents James and Jennifer Crumbley came under increasing scrutiny by both media and law enforcement. It emerged that the gun Ethan used to commit the shooting was purchased by his father only days before, and that Ethan and his mother had both indicated on social media that the gun was an early Christmas present for him. Entries in Ethan’s journal described his attempts to obtain a mental health evaluation being dismissed by his parents. When the parents were called by Ethan’s guidance counselor on multiple occasions regarding Ethan’s apparent obsession with guns and violence, they failed to inform school officials that they had recently purchased the gun as a gift for their troubled son. And when law enforcement searched the Crumbleys’ home after the shooting occurred, they found the family’s gun safe still bearing its factory setting, suggesting it had never been used to secure the gun.

The Case to See if They Could Even Be Tried

The unprecedented fight to hold the parents accountable for the actions of their child began in the courts almost immediately after the parents’ arraignment. After a preliminary examination in February 2022, Michigan’s 52nd District Court Judge Julie Nicholson issued a decision to bind the parents over for trial, writing, “The court finds that the deaths of the four victims could have been avoided if James and Jennifer Crumbley exercised ordinary care and diligence in the care of their son. There was extensive testimony that [Ethan] was certainly a troubled young man, and that the [parents] had knowledge of that situation. But they purchased a gun, which he believed was his and that he was free to use.”

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Matthews tentatively scheduled their trial to start that October, but the Crumbleys sought to dismiss the charges against them, arguing their son was solely responsible. Matthews disagreed, finding that “a reasonable juror could conclude that [Ethan’s] actions were reasonably foreseeable,” and that prosecutors had presented considerable evidence that could convince a jury the parents’ actions or inaction could be tied to the murders their son committed.”

This prompted a series of appeals as the Crumbleys fought their charges, and while this helped significantly delay their trial, multiple appeals courts agreed with the lower courts that it was appropriate for them to be charged. Their challenge ultimately reached the Michigan Supreme Court, which dashed their hopes on October 3, 2023 by denying their motion because the court was not persuaded it should consider the parents’ appeal. The decision meant the case would return to the Oakland County Circuit Court for trial.

Michigan Judges Stepped Up after SCOTUS Abdicated Responsibility

After the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear the Crumbleys’ last appeal, Matthews granted a request by prosecutors to try the parents separately and determined that Jennifer Crumbley would be tried first. Jennifer Crumbley’s trial began on January 24, 2024, with jurors returning a guilty verdict on February 6. James Crumbley’s trial began on March 5, and he received a guilty verdict on March 14. Both parents were sentenced on April 9 to between 10 and 15 years in prison.

The extraordinary nature of the charges made the cases a media spectacle, with national 24-hour news networks carrying live footage of the proceedings and consulting with experts to break down each day’s testimony. The wall-to-wall coverage accomplishes one of Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald’s explicit goals in bringing the charges against the parents: to introduce and normalize the idea to the American public that gun owners whose guns are used to injure or kill other people can and should be held criminally accountable. Advocates for firearm regulations argue that other solutions must be sought to address school shootings, and hope that the charges brought against the Crumbleys will start a trend. Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts said the charges should be “a wake-up call for all gun owners,” and that American society “wouldn’t have school shootings if children couldn’t access guns.”

More Changes to Michigan’s Gun Violence Landscape

When Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald first announced she would charge the Crumbleys on December 3, 2021, she said, “I want to be really clear that these charges are intended to hold the individuals who contributed to this tragedy accountable, and also send a message that gun owners have a responsibility.” By bringing the unprecedented charges against the parents, McDonald was responding to a lack of tools available to public safety officers in Michigan that could hold accountable people who make firearms accessible to children. At the time of the shooting, no statute in Michigan’s criminal code addressed the negligent storage of firearms or ammunition, or failure to adequately secure a firearm when any children are or may be present.

Following the shooting at Oxford High School, Democrats in the legislature introduced a slew of bills to curb gun violence in the state, but most never received a hearing and died at the end of that legislative session. Michigan Democrats won majorities in the Michigan legislature for the first time in 38 years in the 2022 elections, and re-introduced bills intended to strengthen gun control and safety inspired by the Oxford shooting.

Lawmakers enacted legislation that requires firearms stored around children to be unloaded and locked, makes firearm locks more affordable, expands background checks to all gun sales in Michigan, and shifts the requirement to register new pistol purchases from buyers to sellers. Also enacted was an extreme risk protection, or “red flag” law, which will allow police to confiscate guns in the possession of people who are at significant risk of using them against themselves or someone else. Lawmakers also updated Michigan’s criminal code to include penalties for gun owners who fail to safely store a firearm under the new regulations, making a gun owner subject to a 15-year felony if a child uses the gun to kill themselves or someone else.

All of these measures are intended to codify the charges pursued against James and Jennifer Crumbley. They took effect on February 13, 2024; exactly one year after another mass shooting occurred on the campus of Michigan State University that killed three students and injured four others. The laws were not in place in time to prevent the shootings at Oxford High School or Michigan State University, but they will hopefully help prevent shootings like these from occurring in Michigan in the future.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Bruen has eroded firearm regulations at the federal level, but courts in states like Michigan have stepped in where the Supreme Court has thrown up roadblocks in the way of lawmakers seeking to address the gun violence epidemic. By sending James and Jennifer Crumbley to trial and allowing Oakland County prosecutors to make their case against the parents, courts at every level in Michigan recognized the culpability of parents who negligently provide their children with firearms that are then used to injure or kill other people. May their decisions inspire prosecutors in other states to pursue similar charges against negligent parents, and courts in those states to uphold them.

Erin Butler is a regional state courts counsel at Alliance for Justice.