Should we hold parents responsible for their children’s gun violence?

We need parents and families to teach values and reinforce behavior that challenges the gun-slinger culture.

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Funeral Held For Tate Myre, Victim In Oxford School Shooting

The memorial outside of Oxford High School on Dec. 7 in Oxford, Michigan. Four students were killed and seven wounded in the school shooting.

Emily Elconin/Getty Images

When Ethan Crumbley, a troubled 15 year old, shot and killed four students at Oxford High School, in Oxford, Michigan, he was charged with terrorism and murder.  The prosecutor, Karen McDonald, also indicted Crumbley’s parents for involuntary manslaughter, arguing that they should have known their son was a danger to his school and should have revealed that he had access to a handgun that was their early Christmas gift to him 

Just days after the school shooting, Rep Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, posted a family photo with each member of his seven-person family brandishing a rifle, with a caption ending in “p.s. Santa, please bring ammo.” The congressman must have assumed that celebrating Christmas — literally the mass celebrating the birth of Christ — by this macho display would bolster his political prospects. 

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The Michigan indictments challenge what has become a gun-slinging culture. Children are being raised in homes like Massie’s where guns are not simply owned to hunt animals but collected and celebrated as protection against the “other.”

The Oxford attack was the deadliest U.S school shooting since May 2018, when eight students and two teachers were shot at the Santa Fe High School in Texas. According to CNN, there have been 48 K-12 shootings, 32 of them since August.

Should we hold parents responsible for the terrorist acts of their children?  Kyle Rittenhouse, aged 17, carried an AR-15 with 30 rounds — a weapon of war — to the protests in Kenosha that turned violent after a white police officer shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake, a Black man, without being held responsible. Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two. He was carrying a gun purchased for him by a 20-year-old friend. His mother, a single mother struggling to raise 3 children, took her son to a bar, where he was photographed with members of the right-wing Proud Boys. Despite internet reports to the contrary, she apparently didn’t know that her son had gone to Kenosha.

In the Oxford case, the prosecutor moved to indict the parents because “the facts of this case are so egregious.” On the day of the shooting, Ethan’s parents were called urgently to the school when one of his teachers found an alarming note he had drawn, scrawled with images of a gun, a person who had been shot, a laughing emoji and the words “Blood everywhere” and “The thoughts won’t stop.  Help me.” 

His parents dismissed concerns that their son might be a danger to his classmates. They did not reveal that he had access to a gun that they had just given him. They refused to take him out of school for the day. They didn’t ask their son if he had the gun on him and didn’t bother to search his backpack. A few hours later he took his gun from that backpack and started shooting.

I have no idea if the parent’s will be found guilty. Michigan has no law requiring that guns be stored safely locked and with ammunition separated from the weapons. A jury will sort the facts out.

What I do know is that homes are where values are forged. Children are not born to be racist or nationalist. They are taught those values. The children of southern plantation owners weren’t born to assume that children with dark skins are less than human. They had to be taught those values. Children who assume guns can be the answer to their pain aren’t born with that assumption. 

We need to challenge the celebration of vigilantes and gun-slinging, the laws that allow people to march with weapons of war down the streets of our communities, and the culture that worships guns even in the hands of children. The unspeakable deaths of children won’t stop unless we crack down on those responsible for providing them with guns, whether by commission or by negligence. That’s true in our cities and in our rural communities and affluent suburbs. Sensible laws can help. Communities can mobilize to teach. Most of all, we need parents and families to teach values and reinforce behavior that challenges the gun-slinger culture.

We started with a romantic image of a man teaching his son how to hunt and shoot a deer with a rifle. We’ve ended with legislators sending out Christmas cards displaying their whole family armed with everything from assault weapons to shotguns. And with a troubled 15-year-old, with a handgun holding 30 rounds, killing four and wounding 7 of his classmates.  This murderous culture cannot be allowed to fester. And parents, whether held criminally responsible if an act of terror is committed or not, are responsible for the example they set and for what they teach their children at home. 

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