“You have to learn not to get caught.”

It’s about time.

Prior to COVID, the U.S. was experiencing notable mass shootings at the rate of about one a week. Other than certain war-torn, Third World regions, the U.S. proudly leads the globe in mass shootings. It’s about time people who enable these intentional tragedies are held up as the irresponsible, immature and dangerous people they are.

James and Jennifer Crumbley were charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Mich. after a days-long fugitive manhunt. The couple’s attorney had stated the pair would turn themselves in if charged but NBC News reported the Crumbleys entered their bank Friday, withdrawing $4,000 in cash for reasons not immediately clear.

On Dec. 3, the U.S. Marshals Service released wanted posters for James and Jennifer Crumbley, posting $10,000 rewards for information leading to their arrest. The couple was arrested the next day, reportedly hiding in a building in Detroit.

According to Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, on Nov. 26, the Crumbleys purchased a 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun from Acme Shooting Goods in Oxford as a Christmas gift for their 15-year-old son, Ethan. That evening, the youth posted an Instagram photograph of himself holding the handgun, captioned, “Just got my new beauty today. SIG SAUER 9mm…” The following day, Jennifer Crumbley announced, “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present.”

On Nov. 29, the day before the killings, Ethan Crumbley caught the attention of school authorities when he did an internet search for ammunition. In truth, it’s not difficult to imagine a kid — excited about a new gift — breaking school rules to Google accessories for his new toy. But there is a reason “ammunition” is a prohibited item in school internet searches. You’d have to be dense not to know that reason is the mind-numbingly regular school shootings that occur in this country.

Concerned school staff left a message on Jennifer Crumbley’s voicemail and sent her an email— she did not respond to either. Instead, in what has become an iconic demonstration of awful parenting, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son the following cynical message: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

You have to learn not to get caught. That was Jennifer Crumbley’s takeaway from her son’s violation.

The following day, Nov. 30, an Oxford High School teacher discovered a paper on which Ethan Crumbley had scrawled disturbing words and images. According to the Associated Press (AP), the boy had drawn a handgun accompanied by the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” He’d also sketched a bullet with the words “blood everywhere” above the image of a person who’d been shot twice and was bleeding. The AP reported a laughing emoji appeared below the figure along with the words “my life is useless” and “the world is dead.” The teacher was sufficiently alarmed to photograph and report the note.

For obvious reasons, the senior Crumbleys were called to the school that same day to meet with school authorities. Around 10 a.m., a counselor removed Ethan from his classroom and escorted him to the office. The boy carried his backpack.

Ethan’s troubling drawing had been retrieved but not before the teenager blotted out parts of it. After James and Jennifer Crumbley were shown Ethan’s drawing, they were told their son was required to get professional counseling within 48 hours. School officials urged the elder Crumbleys to take their son out of school at least for that day but they resisted this suggestion. James and Jennifer left without their son, who immediately returned to his classroom. No one looked in the teenager’s backpack. No one mentioned Ethan’s new gun.

About an hour later, at 12:51 p.m., Ethan Crumbley emerged from a school restroom holding his beloved Christmas present. He started firing in the hall, killing four students and wounding six others along with one teacher.

Ethan Crumbley has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of terrorism causing death, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was charged as an adult.

In defense of the elder Crumbleys, about 30 minutes after the shooting when news of the event became public, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son, “Ethan don’t do it.” James Crumbley had raced home and, fifteen minutes after his wife texted their son, the elder Crumbley called 911 to report a gun missing from its unlocked drawer in the family home. He told emergency operators he believed his son may be the shooter. While these steps are laudable, they were too little, too late.

When I wrote about the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, I was far less concerned with whether or not Rittenhouse was convicted than I was with a much larger lesson being learned. Similarly, in the case of the Crumbleys, the overarching issue dwarfs the question of whether a pair of previously law-abiding, gun-owning parents should be convicted of enabling their son to kill. Should the Crumbleys face life-changing consequences for their actions? Emphatically yes. But I am content to let a court of law determine their fate.

What can we do — as parents, as educators, as law enforcement, as lawmakers, as health care professionals, as ordinary citizens, as Americans — to take purposeful steps to minimize the risk of yet another school shooting occurring? Could it be gun-owning parents like the Crumbleys need to immediately and profoundly adopt a sober and dead-serious attitude when it comes to their kids and guns? Does it mean all gun-owning Americans should understand that, yes, what happened in Oxford — and Parkridge and Littleton and Roseburg and Springfield, Oregon and hundreds of other U.S. cities — could happen in their towns, too? Does it mean people who have come to distrust and hate each other need to sit down together for a deadly serious and brutally honest talk?

I am weary of left-leaners’ predictable gut reaction to eliminate guns even though I sometimes feel it myself. I am also tired of right-siders’ predictable and inane instinct to circle the wagons lest someone come for those precious guns. It’s time for a meaningful dialogue about meaningful steps that allow our kids to go to school with a reasonable assumption of safety. Why is it that guns — as nauseatingly evidenced by almost 800 school shootings in less than a decade — seem to take precedence over a priceless child’s right to learn in safety?

Although it sounds like a sick punchline, I know my gun-owning friends love their children more than their guns. They really do.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, the U.S. saw over 400 mass shootings in 2019. Even though they received substantially less publicity, mass shootings increased dramatically during the COVID shutdown with over 600 recorded in 2020. Obviously, this is more than one per week but most people were likely aware of at least one notable mass shooting per week during those years.

At the onset of the COVID shutdown, I began an ambitious project to identify common ground in the gun debate between those on the left and right. I went into the endeavor with a conflicting mix of cynicism and hope and I was actually surprised when I found common ground. Mind you, this was no scientific effort but, anecdotally speaking, I found common ground between people I know who hold very strong pro-gun opinions and their counterparts on the opposite side. This gives me hope and underscores the need for dialogue between the two factions.

As a realist, I know there is no way to eradicate guns and I would not support doing so, if it was proposed. As I’ve stated before, I was schooled in firearms at a young age — I am not scared of guns. But I believe entirely too many morons and maniacs enjoy barely restricted access to a tool designed expressly to kill quickly and efficiently. To head off fans of false equivalencies, I will point out there is no intelligent comparison between weapons like knives with guns when one can mow down 25 people at a single squeeze and the other cannot.

Why do we not demand demonstrations of maturity, proficiency, levelheadedness, restraint and accountability, characteristics we often require before people use other tools having the potential to maim or kill?

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. If everyone would drop their politics for a moment, the issue of school shootings could be discussed from a common-sense human perspective, not from the hard polarity of leftist over-control or rightist free-for-all anarchy. The fact that “the issue of school shootings” is even a phrase should disgust every American.

To be clear, both sides will have to give. I’m not proposing a massive gun round-up like Australia conducted in response to the April 1996 shooting in Port Arthur where 35 people died and 18 were wounded by a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle. Still, the Australian government and citizenry acted far more decisively than we seem capable of doing.

Are we not yet horrified enough to take meaningful action? The status quo is unacceptable — while some steps under current law might help, we need to examine the sacrosanct position firearms occupy in this country. Our kids’ lives depend on it.

It’s long past time for a real dialogue between people who have resisted meeting the other side halfway to seriously talk. We need to do it immediately, right now. We cannot wait even another moment.

I’m sick of writing columns that practically name themselves.

“Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

Photocomposite © Senivpetro via Freepik; Ava-Dickson via Unsplash

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