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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Michigan court rules parents can share criminal responsibility for child's gun crimes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ethan Crumbley was 15 years old when he committed a mass shooting at Michigan's Oxford High School a few years ago. A judge sent him to prison for life. Yesterday, a jury found his mother shares responsibility.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A jury found Jennifer Crumbley guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter. She faces many years in prison. And Ethan's father, James Crumbley, still faces involuntary manslaughter charges. And this raises the question, at what point do parents share criminal responsibility for a child's gun crimes?

INSKEEP: NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste joins us now. Martin, good morning.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Does this case set a new standard?

KASTE: Well, it's not clear that this suddenly makes gun-owning parents more criminally liable for their children's actions because experts call this an extreme case. It's less about how Ethan got the gun, and this is more about how Jennifer Crumbley ignored clear warnings that her son posed a danger and failed to stop him. Still, there are some people who think this may affect some of the more gray area cases in which parents are careless with their guns. I talked about this with Adam Skaggs, who's the vice president at the Giffords Law Center.

ADAM SKAGGS: If a high-profile prosecution of this nature leads some prosecutors to think maybe they should use the tools that they can to deter irresponsible gun ownership, irresponsible gun storage, that may not be a bad thing.

INSKEEP: OK, so this case becomes part of the conversation. How does it compare with other prosecutions in somewhat analogous situations?

KASTE: Well, nobody's really keeping track of how many prosecutions like this there are nationally. But in these shootings that have gotten national attention, what we've seen is that the parent usually isn't charged with violating a gun safety law, per se. It's typically something else. For instance, that notorious case last year of the 6-year-old in Newport News, Va. - the boy who brought his mother's gun to school and shot his teacher - there, his mother ended up pleading guilty to felony child neglect.

INSKEEP: OK. Not too many cases that we can judge by here. What about the laws that apply and how they're evolving?

KASTE: Well, that's easier to quantify here because roughly half the states have laws now that require guns to be kept out of reach of children. Some also have laws that require guns to be locked up when kids are present. But these safe storage laws are harder to pass because Second Amendment rights groups say that they can also hamper an adult's ability to keep a gun ready for self-defense. That said, more states are passing laws like that. Michigan passed a version after the Oxford High School shooting, and it takes effect next week.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in this, Martin, because when people debate gun control legislation, one of the arguments against it is that it doesn't work, that people get guns anyway, that people use guns anyway. Is there any research suggesting that these particular gun safety laws do work?

KASTE: Well, the experts say yes. I talked to April Zeoli. She's with the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention at the University of Michigan.

APRIL ZEOLI: There is a measurable effect in child suicide, child homicide and child unintentional deaths. In fact, child access prevention laws are the firearm safety law with the most evidence in reducing child deaths.

KASTE: But here again, though, Zeoli does not know how often parents are actually prosecuted under those gun safety laws. Her guess is it's not that often. She says that's because parents' negligence often goes undetected when no one's shot. And when someone is shot or a child dies, prosecutors may still hesitate to bring a criminal charge against grieving parents.

INSKEEP: NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste. Martin, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.