Prosecutors in Michigan took a rare step on Friday by filing involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents of the 15-year-old accused of fatally shooting four students in the halls of Oxford High School, saying that they had bought the semiautomatic handgun that he used to carry out the deadly rampage as a Christmas gift.
Karen D. McDonald, the prosecutor in Oakland County, detailed a litany of missed opportunities to prevent the shooting as she spoke at a news conference announcing four manslaughter charges each against the gunman’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley.
On the morning of the Nov. 30 shooting, the suspect’s parents were urgently called into the high school after one of his teachers found an alarming note he had drawn, scrawled with images of a gun, a person who had been shot and a laughing emoji, and the words, “Blood everywhere,” and, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
The day before the shooting, a teacher had seen the suspect searching online for ammunition for the gun in class, which led to a meeting with school officials, the prosecutor said. After being informed by the school about their son’s behavior, Mrs. Crumbley texted to her son: “LOL, I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” Ms. McDonald said.
School officials told the parents during the in-person meeting on Tuesday that they were required to seek counseling for their son, Ethan, Ms. McDonald said. The teenager’s parents did not want their son to be removed from school that day, and did not ask him whether he had the gun with him or search the backpack he brought with him to the office, Ms. McDonald said.
“The notion that a parent could read those words and also know their son had access to a deadly weapon, that they gave him, is unconscionable and I think it’s criminal. It is criminal,” she said.
Ms. McDonald said the teenager’s parents had been storing the newly purchased 9-millimeter Sig Sauer pistol unlocked in a bedroom drawer.
At about 12:50 p.m. that day, law-enforcement authorities said, Ethan Crumbley walked into a bathroom carrying his backpack and emerged armed with the handgun and began to shoot.
At 1:22 p.m., as news of the school shooting broke, the prosecutor said, Mrs. Crumbley texted her son: “Ethan, don’t do it.” Mr. Crumbley rushed home to check on whether the gun was still in the bedroom drawer. At 1:37 p.m., Ms. McDonald said, he called 911 to report that a weapon had been removed from his house and said his son might be the school gunman.
“There was absolute reason to believe this individual was dangerous and disturbed,” the prosecutor said, adding, “Four kids were murdered and seven more injured, so yes, we should all be very angry.”
Ms. McDonald said her office would also look at whether the school could have done more, saying, “There were a lot of things that could have been so simple to prevent.”
She added, “He should have not been allowed to go back to that class, and I believe that that is a universal position.”
Members of the community also expressed outrage following the prosecutor’s description of the events leading up to the shooting and the school’s handling of them.
“Everybody should be angry,” said Renee Guzanek, whose daughter sheltered in a teachers’ office during the shooting. “I am angry as a mom and angry as a community member.”
“I’m not a fan of pointing fingers, she added, “I don’t have enough information to say what should have or should not have happened, but it certainly sounds from what the prosecutor says that there was an opportunity for this to be disrupted and it wasn’t.”
The suspect fired more than 30 rounds before he was apprehended. The slain students were Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Justin Shilling, 17; and Hana St. Juliana, 14. Seven other people were wounded. A lawyer for Ethan Crumbley pleaded not guilty on his behalf this week.
Although many underage school shooters arm themselves with guns from home, the adults responsible for the weapons are rarely charged, experts say.
Many states, including Michigan, do not have laws requiring guns to be locked away, and experts say prosecuting a gunman’s family members in the raw aftermath of a mass shooting can raise divisive questions pitting Second Amendment rights against gun safety.
Investigators say the suspect talked about his desire and plans to kill classmates at Oxford in two cellphone videos and a journal they found in his backpack. But the superintendent of the Oxford school district said the teenager did not have a disciplinary record at the high school, and said the concerns about his behavior did not lead to any punishment.
“No discipline was warranted,” Tim Throne, superintendent of the Oxford Community Schools, said in a YouTube video posted on Thursday.
Michael Kelly, a Northville, Mich., lawyer who frequently represents expelled students, said the warning signs should have led the school to take more decisive action, but without a disciplinary record, administrators’ failure to act more decisively might fall into a legal gray area.
Mr. Kelly predicted litigation against the school system.
After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., families of the victims filed dozens of lawsuits against those they argued could have prevented the attack. Only in the past several months did they reach settlements with the school district and the federal government. In that case the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, had a long history of disciplinary problems, and had been the source of a tip to the F.B.I. saying he had the potential to cause violence at school.
Gun control advocates have argued for more prosecutions of adults when their weapons fall into the hands of children, leading to suicides, accidental deaths or intentional school shootings. But legal experts say a patchwork of state laws — some stringent and some lax — regulating gun storage and children’s access to weapons can pose a hurdle to prosecutions.
Kris Brown, president of the gun control group Brady United, said that Michigan, unlike nearly 30 other states, did not have what was known as a child-access prevention law requiring adults to keep any guns in their home out of the reach of children.
“The idea is that if you have a kid in the home, even if it is not your own kid, any firearm needs to be stored safely — which means unloaded, locked and separated from any ammunition,” Ms. Brown said.
States like California and New York set tougher safety standards for gun owners while more gun-friendly states in the Southeast impose penalties only if a child actually obtains or fires a gun.
“Michigan doesn’t have a strong law or a weak law,” Ms. Brown said. “It has no law on this.”
Parents across the country have been charged with child abuse, violating gun laws and even negligent manslaughter after their young children accidentally shoot themselves or other children. But gun control experts said Ms. McDonald’s move to charge the parents of a mass shooting suspect was almost unheard-of.
“I can’t think of a high-profile mass shooting where the parents were prosecuted,” said Allison Anderman, director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In western Kentucky, there were calls three years ago to prosecute the stepfather of a 15-year-old school shooter after the authorities learned the teenage gunman had obtained his stepfather’s handgun from an unlocked bedroom closet.
But the local prosecutor, Dennis Foust, decided he could not make a case against the stepfather. Kentucky law makes it a crime to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” provide a handgun to a minor — a high standard to prove. Mr. Foust said the stepfather did not know the gun was gone until questioned by investigators after the shooting.
“I’m a firm believer in gun responsibility, but we just didn’t see there was enough there,” he said.
Mr. Foust said that local law enforcement also opposed charging the stepfather with a crime and wanted to keep the focus of the prosecution squarely on the gunman, who is serving a life sentence after killing two classmates.
“There needs to be accountability,” Mr. Foust said. “But under our situation, we weren’t able to do that. I don’t know that society, at least here, would effect sufficient change to be able to prosecute a parent.”
Sophie Kasakove, Stephanie Saul and Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.