A moral failure

When reports emerge of a teenager doing something reckless, careless or just stupid, my Republican friends are often the first to demand accountability from lazy or absent parents. These conservative friends don’t usually hesitate to decry moral failures when it comes to dysfunctional families and the awful actions of their children. In this, I am in perfect agreement with them. If a family’s sloppy or lazy child-rearing results in hooligans who wreak havoc on others, at least some blame lies on the parents.

Such sentiments often manifest themselves when a child stupidly or carelessly commits vandalism or causes destruction — my conservative friends believe the guilty child’s parents should be held accountable for the actions of their progeny. I agree in principle with this perspective. If you raise an out-of-control child, you might expect some sort of censure or reckoning when your kid misbehaves.

To be clear, I am not disrespecting my conservative friends — on the contrary, I repeat: I am in wholehearted agreement with them on matters of parental responsibility,

But there is one notable exception to this rule.

Whenever a firearm is involved, my right-leaning friends circle the wagons around the sanctity of the gun, cutting the wicked child loose to suffer whatever justice befalls him. The lofty status of the gun means deficient parents are immediately exempt from whatever moral failings they may possess in favor of a purely legal interpretation of their transgressions. All that matters is whether or not the parents broke any laws. Moral concerns vanish as soon as that gun comes out.

Of course, there will be the usual post-event wringing of hands, finger-pointing and deflection but the one absolutely predictable reaction will be a defense of that gun. This knee-jerk response seems utterly counterintuitive to me.

Last week, the parents of school shooter Ethan Crumbley made headlines again. With school shootings mind-numbingly common in recent years, you might be forgiven if you need to be reminded that Ethan Crumbley was the 15-year-old sophomore who killed four students and wounded seven others at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Michigan on Nov. 30, 2021. Crumbley’s parents are each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to secure the gun Crumbley used to kill.

As you might recall, James and Jennifer Crumbley purchased a 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun as a Christmas gift for their son, Ethan. The evening he received the gift, the youth posted an Instagram photograph of himself holding the handgun, captioned, “Just got my new beauty today…” The following day, Jennifer Crumbley announced, “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present.”

The day before the killings, Ethan Crumbley caught the attention of school authorities when he did an internet search for ammunition at school.

The following day, Nov. 30, an Oxford High School teacher discovered a paper on which Ethan Crumbley had scrawled disturbing words and images. 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 teacher was sufficiently alarmed to photograph and report the note.

Messages from school officials regarding the ammunition search sent Nov. 29 to Jennifer Crumbley’s voicemail and email were ignored. But Jennifer Crumbley did text her son the following cynical message: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

James and Jennifer Crumbley met with school officials Nov. 30 but resisted the suggestion they take their son home for the rest of the day, requiring he attend counseling. (More details here.)

After Ethan shot up the school an hour-or-so later, the Crumbleys reframed their story, removing any suggestion that the gun was ever intended for Ethan.

The Detroit Free Press reported that a former Crumbley neighbor was concerned enough to lodge an anonymous neglect complaint with Michigan child protective services because the elder Crumbleys often patronized local bars, leaving their son alone with no telephone for long periods of time.

Then a week ago, the senior Crumbleys garnered headlines once again when it was revealed that, among other things, they laughed at their son when he pleaded for psychological help.

They laughed at him.

Well, Ethan’s mother, Jennifer Crumbley, reportedly laughed at her son, anyway. Her husband, James Crumbley, apparently handed the teen some pills and told him to “suck it up.”

Last time I wrote about the Crumbleys, numerous people with conservative perspectives weighed in, defending the elder Crumbleys, pointing out (correctly) that the actions of Ethan are not the actions of his parents.

But why does the indignant demand for parental accountability disappear when the offending child grabs a gun?

What I cannot wrap my head around is this: it seems to me that of all people, gun-rights supporters have the most to gain from making sure families universally handle firearms with restraint and caution. To be sure, many of my conservative friends do exercise disciplined and careful firearms-handling when it comes to gun safety and training their kids. But this shouldn’t be a hit-and-miss exercise, where some families step up while others fail miserably.

While they may or may not meet the definition of a legal failure, the Crumbley family is unquestionably a moral train wreck.

So what do we do? How do we make parents like James and Jennifer Crumbley take firearms ownership seriously, recognizing it as a life-or-death matter, especially when it comes to their kids? Or how do we prevent parents like the Crumbleys from owning firearms if they will not or cannot shoulder such responsibility?

As I’ve stated before, I believe emphatically that ownership of a tool designed to quickly and efficiently kill should be accompanied by maturity, stability, competency and accountability. I do not have a problem with a fundamental right to bear arms as long as we acknowledge this right comes with fundamental responsibilities.

Regardless of your position on firearms, I want to hear your thoughts.

Before you answer, please consider the following:

  • Guns are here to stay. Firearms are embedded in the U.S. culture — further, there are far too many to eliminate appreciably through regulation. I believe “gun grabs” accomplish little other than angering one side and giving the other a false sense of security. Oh sure, if it was all-encompassing, such an action could theoretically work but that’s not a gun grab. It’s eradication and it’s not going to happen.
  • School shootings are moral failures, overshadowing any legal failures. But on the legal side, are there realistic laws or regulations — existing or proposed — that would be reasonable, enforceable and actually make a difference?
  • We almost certainly cannot legislate morality. Yes, there are a lot of gun owners who take firearms stewardship as a deadly serious responsibility. But there are a lot of gun owners who don’t. How, then, can we encourage or force the latter to emulate the former?
  • This should be a common-ground conversation. Every sane and responsible American should find school shootings absolutely unacceptable. Habitual blame-the-other-side “solutions” usually miss at least part of the picture and tend to put the other side immediately on the defensive. How can we work together to fix this?
  • Posting armed guards at schools is not a good solution. Ditto for armed teachers. If we acknowledge school shootings as the norm and react by turning schools into citadels, then we accept that our children may well witness a bloody shoot-out, even if it is the good guys shooting the bad guys. We should not accept any school shooting as “the cost of doing business.” No child should be forced to witness a brutal killing, regardless of who kills who.
  • Posting armed guards at schools is not a deterrent. Not for messed-up kids with nothing to lose, anyway. For more, see previous paragraph.

I want to be clear I am not advocating pointless new laws that try — and fail — to hold parents accountable legally while placing unreasonable-and-ineffective restrictions on arms. But I am also not advocating the status quo where the right of a child to live is subordinate to any American’s right to bear the arm(s) of his or her choice.

So I’m asking you: what can we do? I want to hear your thoughts and ideas, even if you disagree with me.

The phrase “school shooting” should be so rare as to be shocking. I’m pretty sure we all agree on this point.

As it stands now, I had to recount the Crumbley shooting, rehashing the details so we don’t confuse it with one of the other 33 school shootings that occurred in 2021. Or with one of the 1,968 U.S. school shootings recorded since 1970.

Let’s use this fundamental common ground to talk about meaningful solutions.

Photocomposite © Senivpetro via Freepik; Wonderlane via Unsplash

2 Replies to “A moral failure”

  1. I grew up on a Central Oregon farm where our yearly vacation was Elk Season, two weeks in the Blue Mountains getting up at 4 AM in the cold morning to go hunting. I learned to shoot a .22 at 8 and a 30-30 at 10. I’m also a Marine ‘Nam vet.
    At some point after my return from the war manufacturers began selling more toys for playing war than guns to use for hunting. We have become an armed population of frightened and angry people waiting in our homes for an imagined catastrophe where only our guns can save us. No laws can change that, only a real catastrophe can.

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