Injustice in America: Should Parents Pay for the Crimes of Their Children?
By David Josef Volodzko
My views of guns and American gun culture are complicated. On balance, I like living in the UK where private gun ownership is extremely limited. But I also do not share the default British belief that Americans who own guns are crazy and dangerous. If I lived in the US, I would train with and own firearms.
But the case discussed below has nothing to do with guns. It’s about the extent to which parents can be held responsible for the actions of their children. I’m therefore very grateful that David Josef Volodzko took the time to give his perspective on this issue. You can read David’s own Substack here.
North Korea is one of the most wretched places on earth. For the better part of a decade, I lived 35 miles south of the border in Seoul, where I often covered the horror stories of that humanitarian wasteland. One that always stood out to me was a punishment known as yeonjwaje, or “crime of association,” whereby the communist state punished one’s entire family. Kwalliso No. 22, a death camp in the country’s frigid northernmost region, held critics of the government along with their parents, grandparents, spouses, and children. No one sent there ever came back.
The Nazis had a similar concept known as Sippenhaft. When the Panzer soldier Wenzeslaus Leiss was executed for alleged desertion in 1943, the Dusseldorf Gestapo also shipped his wife, sister, two brothers, his wife’s brother, and his two-year-old daughter to Sachsenhausen camp where they were murdered.
In Soviet Russia, Article 58 of the Criminal Code specified “family members of a traitor to the Motherland,” i.e. wives and children, would be automatically arrested along with their husbands. The wives were sent to Gulag labor camps while the children of “enemies of the people” were either sent to Gulags themselves or nightmarish orphanages to prevent their counter-revolutionary upbringing from infecting the rest of society.
Thank God that in modern Western societies, we do not punish people for crimes of guilt by association.
Except that this last week in Michigan, a jury convicted Jennifer Crumbley of involuntary manslaughter after her son Ethan, who was 15 at the time, carried a SIG Sauer 9mm handgun to school on November 30, 2021 and shot a teacher and 10 students, killing four. This is the first time in U.S. history that a parent has been convicted in a mass school shooting. To be clear, she was not prosecuted for buying her son the gun. That is not illegal in the United States. Rather, she was effectively prosecuted for the actions of her son, not her own. Like a Soviet people’s court, Michigan has ruled that parents can be held responsible for the crimes of their children.
This publication is supported by over 35,000 people like you. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Prosecutors said Crumbley was grossly negligent for not telling Oxford High School that her family owned guns and for allowing her son to harm others. The prosecution noted the boy’s journal included plans to shoot up the school, but submitted no evidence that either parent read the journal. The prosecution noted that the boy’s mother had searched online for depression treatment, absurdly suggesting she might have known her son would hurt people, despite the fact that the boy’s dog and a grandparent had died just weeks before. “I trusted him,” she testified, “and I felt I had an open door.”
Prosecutors also argued that she failed to secure the gun, but they presented no witnesses or evidence to that effect. According to this logic, should prosecutors also go after Oxford High teachers? After all, they found a drawing of a man being shot on Ethan Crumbley’s math assignment on the day of the shooting and did not call police. Alongside the drawing were the words, “The thoughts won’t stop Help me,” “Blood everywhere,” “My life is useless,” and “The world is dead.”
But Crumbley later crossed these remarks out and wrote, “I love my life so much,” “Were (sic) all friends here,” and “Video game this is.” When the school counselor asked him about the drawings, Crumbley said he wanted to be a video game designer. The counselor called in his parents, and they discussed it, but decided Ethan Crumbley would remain in school that day. The school has an active-shooter drill in place, so what about the drill instructor? In 2017, the school installed a Nightlock barrier on every door, which teachers were trained to use, so what sentencing would be fair for the kindly folks who installed the Nightlocks or trained the teachers?
Ethan Crumbley’s parents bought him the 9mm four days before the shooting, and his mother took him to a shooting range that weekend, immediately showing him how to properly use his new gun. This is what every parent ought to do when buying a gun for their kid. But the prosecution used this too against her, saying, “You saw your son shoot the last practice round before the shooting on Nov. 30. You saw how he stood … He knew how to use the gun.”
Would it be better for parents not to teach their kids to properly use firearms? How much do you want to bet, had they done so, that the prosecution would’ve used that against them too? In the end, Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty to murder and terrorism and is currently serving a life sentence. Justice has been served. But the state has made an example of his mother, who now faces 60 years in prison. His father, James Crumbley, will stand trial next month.
This sets a dangerous precedent. Whatever this was, it wasn’t justice. Unless you happen to live 35 miles north of Seoul.