Dec 8, 2021

The Michigan school shooting.

The Michigan school shooting.

In an unusual move, the parents have been charged.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the shooting in Michigan, and what it means now that the parents of the alleged shooter have been charged. Plus, a question about Biden's ambassadors.

The Crumbley family mugshots. Image: David Clarke Twitter
The Crumbley family mugshots. Image: David Clarke Twitter

Quick hits.

  1. Democrats and Republicans narrowly avoided a debt ceiling crisis, striking a deal yesterday to raise the limit with an unusual maneuver. (The deal)
  2. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a two hour virtual meeting as tension over a potential Russia invasion of Ukraine builds. (The meeting)
  3. House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement that would strip power from military commanders to prosecute sexual assaults and other criminal cases in their own ranks, handing it over to independent military prosecutors. (The new rules)
  4. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows now says he will not cooperate with the House select committee investigating Jan. 6th, after previously saying he would. (The reversal)
  5. French officials arrested and then released a man suspected in the killing of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, saying it was a case of mistaken identity. (The story)

Today's topic.

The school shooting in Michigan. Last week, a 15-year-old boy named Ethan Crumbley was charged with murder and terrorism for a shooting that killed four students and injured several more at Oxford High School in Michigan. Then on Friday, prosecutors took the unusual step of also charging Ethan's parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, with involuntary manslaughter.

Karen McDonald, prosecutor for Oakland County, Michigan, says the Crumbleys committed "egregious" acts that contributed to the mass shooting, including buying Ethan the weapon, leaving it in an unsecure place, and ignoring obvious signs that their son could be dangerous. Under Michigan law, an involuntary manslaughter charge can be filed if authorities "believe someone contributed to a situation where there was a high chance of harm or death," according to the Associated Press. Both the Crumbleys entered not guilty pleas and are being held on a $500,000 bond each.

Here's a timeline of events, according to The Associated Press and prosecutors:

On November 26th, Ethan's dad James purchased him a 9mm Sig Sauer from Acme Shooting Goods. Later that day, the 15-year-old posted a photo of himself with the gun on Instagram. On November 27th, Jennifer Crumbley posted on social media “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present." On November 28th, a school teacher sees Ethan searching for ammunition online during class, and reports him to school officials. Ethan meets with a school counselor, saying he recently went to a shooting range with his mom and that shooting is a family hobby.

School personnel reach out to Jennifer Crumbley, who does not reply. While texting her son, she says, “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” Later that day, after school, Ethan records a video in which he discusses killing students, according to Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Willis. On November 30th, a teacher finds a concerning note on Ethan's desk, including a drawing of a handgun, a bloody bullet going through a person, laughing smiley faces, and words like “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me;" “blood everywhere;” “my life is useless;” and “the world is dead.” The teacher takes a photograph of the note and reports it.

When Ethan is talking to counselors, he tells them he is designing a video game, and has already scratched out portions of the note. His parents come to the school and are advised they have 48 hours to take him into counseling. But they refuse a request to take Ethan home, and affirm his answers to the school that he is not a risk to any other students. His parents leave to return to work, and Ethan goes back to class. At 12:51, he emerges from a bathroom with the gun his father purchased and begins his shooting spree.

As news of the shooting breaks, Ethan's mom sends him a text: "Ethan don’t do it.” At 1:37 p.m., Ethan's father calls 911 to report that a gun is missing from his house and he believes his son may be the shooter. The weapon was kept in an unlocked drawer in the parents' bedroom. On Friday, December 3rd, the Crumbleys are charged. On December 4th, they're found hiding in a warehouse in Detroit and arrested.Now what? Charging the parents of a school shooter is very unusual, and signals a new strategy from prosecutors — one that legal experts and gun violence activists think could become a more common practice. There is also the possibility school officials could be charged, too. The prosecutors’ moves are setting off a new debate about how to limit mass shooting sprees like this one, and also who is responsible in similar gun violence events.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right. Then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is happy that the prosecution is trying a new strategy by charging the parents.
  • They want a message to be sent that parents are responsible.
  • They advocate for laws that ensure people keep their guns in secure places.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said the charges sent the right message.

"This is a wake-up call for the gun-owning parents and guardians of the estimated 5.4 million children who live in homes with unsecured firearms," Watts wrote. "We must change the conversation in America about school shootings, which have historically focused on reactive ways school officials or police can stop an armed child from opening fire. Instead, we must put proactive policies in place to keep guns away from students and out of schools in the first place. That starts with secure gun storage.

"Oxford High School had many safety measures in place: a full-time sheriff’s deputy, security cameras and regular active-shooter drills," she added. "Teachers had also reported the teen to school officials for worrisome behavior, including searching online for ammunition during class and drawing violent, disturbing images of gun violence. Yet all of these measures weren’t enough to stop a school shooting because the student still had access to a gun at home. The simple truth is if students didn’t have easy access to guns, there would be few, if any, school shootings in America. Only 23 states have some form of secure-storage law on the books... These laws should be nonpartisan, noncontroversial and nonpolitical, and states should implement them immediately so that reckless gun owners can be held accountable for their negligence."

The Washington Post editorial board said negligent parents should be locked up, too.

"The morning of the shooting, the suspect’s parents were summoned to the school after a teacher found a disturbing note he had drawn," the editorial board wrote. "The school told the parents the boy needed counseling, but the parents did not want their son removed from school, did not ask him if he had the gun with him and did not search the backpack he brought to the office. It also does not appear that they told school officials they had just purchased a gun for their son.

"School officials share blame, too. Why did they allow the boy back into class? Why did no one search his backpack?" the board asked. "[Prosecutor Karen] McDonald also called for strengthening of Michigan gun laws, which currently do not require gun owners to store weapons safely. A 2018 report on school shootings by The Post’s John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich found that most of the gunmen — 84 of the 105 cases examined — had obtained their weapons from their homes or those of relatives or friends."

In the Los Angeles Times, James Densley and Jillian Peterson wrote about what their research has shown.

"School shooters are nearly always too young to legally own a weapon or take it outside the home," they said. "Of all the common-sense gun laws typically proposed after school shootings — universal background checks, extreme-risk protection orders, an assault weapons ban — safe storage is the most directly applicable. In our research, around 60% of the 37 guns brought to the scene of the 12 school mass shootings came directly from family members. Only four of the 14 shooters didn’t get a gun from home.

"Proposals requiring secure storage at home are generally popular among gun owners and non-gun owners alike," they added. "Research shows they can help prevent gun thefts, suicides and accidental shootings, in addition to school shootings. One study found that keeping firearms locked up can reduce shootings in the home by 75%. Thirty-one states have child access prevention laws, but only 11 states have any sort of safe storage legislation. Michigan isn’t one of them."


What the right is saying.

  • The right believes the prosecution is overcharging the case.
  • While they condemn the parents, they don't believe their actions are criminal.
  • Many call for caution and to wait for more details to come out.

On his website, lawyer Jonathan Turley took a look at the laws in question.

"The state must prove that the Crumbleys caused the death of the deceased victim, that the deceased individual died as a result of their actions by (1) intending to kill the victim, (2) intending to do great bodily harm to the victim, or (3) creating a situation where the risk of great bodily harm or death was very high, knowing that as a result of the defendant’s actions he or she knew that serious harm or death would likely result," Turley wrote. "The prosecutors must also show that the defendant caused the death of the victim without justification or lawful excuse.

"It is obviously the third option that is the likely basis for these charges," he said. "The key question is whether this level of negligence is sufficient to create a situation where the risk of great bodily harm or death was very high, knowing that as a result of the defendant’s actions he or she knew that serious harm or death would likely result. The fact that they left the gun in an unlocked drawer would not be sufficient. Unfortunately, that is all too common and is not a crime in a state without a child access prevention law. This demands more than simply negligence but a recklessness that led to conditions likely to cause such fatalities."

In the National Review, Andrew McCarthy said the prosecutor is overcharging the case.

"To say this [the parents' actions] reflects appalling judgment is an understatement. But let’s take a breath and grasp the legal context," McCarthy said. "Several states have so-called CAP (child-access prevention) laws that make it a crime for adults to allow children to have unsupervised access to firearms. Such laws have repeatedly been proposed in Michigan, but the legislature has opted not to enact them. Moreover, while prosecutors insisted, in announcing their involuntary-manslaughter charges, that the pistol should have been locked away, with a safety mechanism clipped in place and the ammunition kept separate, there is no such mandate in state law. And, the passion of anti-gun advocates notwithstanding, if such a law were enacted it would face stiff constitutional challenges.

"It is one thing to say that the parents were egregiously derelict — just as, for example, store owners are egregiously derelict when they sell to suspicious characters substances (including explosive powders) that can be used to make bombs," he wrote. "But that does not make the parents’ conduct a criminal violation, much less make them responsible for homicide — a much more serious crime, even in the form of involuntary manslaughter, than the CAP crime that Michigan has refused to codify."

In PJ Media, Rick Moran said the parents were charged with "not being able to read their son’s mind."

"Social media posts show that Ethan’s parents took him to the gun store and bought the weapon as a Christmas present," Moran wrote. "They didn’t lock the gun up — they weren’t required to. There are no safe storage laws in Michigan. And they apparently ignored — or didn’t notice — other warning signs exhibited by their son that might have prevented the shootings if they had intervened in some way.

"James and Jennifer Crumbley are not ideal parents," Moran said. "In fact, they appear to be horrible, neglectful parents. But the law, in this case, is not concerned with how good or bad the parents were in raising their son. The law is about whether the Crumbleys can be held legally accountable for the deaths of four innocent kids.”


My take.

First, it's important to say there is a lot we don't know. If there's one overarching takeaway from the numerous high-profile cases we've watched unfold recently — the Parkland shooting, the Jussie Smollett incident, Kyle Rittenhouse's case, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the trial of Derek Chauvin — it's that our understanding of what happened in the first days or even the first few weeks after the event tends to change pretty substantially over time.

In this case, there are lots of relevant questions that still need to be answered. What other signs did the parents ignore? What else did Ethan's mom say during the now-infamous "LOL" text message exchange? What responsibility lies with the school administrators, if any? Did the parents grant Ethan access to the gun? Did they worry about the possibility among themselves but pretend otherwise to the school?

There's also a more charitable reading of the parents here. The father, for example, called 911 when he realized his gun was gone and heard news of the shooting. The mom texted Ethan, imploring him not to do it, apparently presuming he may not have already begun his shooting spree. Were they just trying to cover their tracks? Or is this proof of something closer to naive and irresponsible parents vs. neglectful and dangerous?

Then there's the larger question of what these charges mean. Evan Bernick wrote a thought-provoking piece in The Washington Post that every left-of-center American would probably want to read. He makes the case that this "extraordinary prosecutorial response," if successful, will inevitably be expanded to be used on Black Americans and only further expand our already gigantic prison population. His case, essentially, is that opening up this kind of prosecution is bad news for people who want criminal justice reform.

These are all things worth chewing on.

Then there's the other part of my brain. This is the part that cannot fathom how so many danger signals were ignored. The drawings, the pleas for help, the Instagram posts with the gun, the video announcing his intent, the searching for ammunition in class. If someone had written Ethan Crumbley's actions into a television script, it probably would have been laughed out of the room for being too heavy handed. And yet here we are.

Equally infuriating are some of the Second Amendment advocates' responses. As I've written in the past, I happen to like guns, appreciate the importance of the right to bear arms, and am generally skeptical of some of the mainstream gun control proposals out there. But some of this stuff is akin to what I wrote about our nation's response to Covid-19: You can't refuse to get vaccinated, refuse to wear a mask, refuse to get tested, refuse to social distance, refuse to stay home if you're feeling sick, and then throw your hands up and say your rights are being infringed upon.

The gun rights side is doing the same thing here: Refusing red flag laws, refusing bans on weapons of war, refusing child-access prevention laws, refusing to charge gun manufacturers, refusing gun registry databases, refusing to study gun violence at all, refusing to allow cities like New York to legislate open carry out of existence, and then throwing their hands up and saying their rights are being violated when parents get charged in a case like this. Even worse, every mitigation strategy gun rights activists so often point to was in place here: There was a full-time deputy sheriff on campus, the school had drills to respond to a shooting, the student was reported, his parents were brought in, and the school had security cameras.

There has to be some concession to common sense at some point. There has to be some middle ground. Right now, it doesn’t feel like we’re close. So, will the charges stick? I'm not sure. Frankly, I kind of doubt it, but again: We need a lot more information. What I am sure of, though, is that we have a problem — a big one, one no other nation really has — and I'm open to novel ideas about how to address it, given how ineffective every other idea we’ve enacted has been.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What is going on with the Senate blocking Biden’s nominees? Many ambassadors are being held up.

— Nathan, San Diego, California

Tangle: Yeah, it's a huge problem. By my count, Biden has only been able to seat ambassadors to Austria, Canada, Israel, Kosovo, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Turkey. No other recent president has had such an anemic ambassadorship at this point in their presidency. Even Trump, who faced considerable opposition, had 40 ambassadors in place by this point in his presidency, mainly because Democrats believed it was better to have a functioning foreign diplomacy than to completely stonewall an objectionable agenda.

Now, Republicans — especially Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) — are doing everything they can to grind Biden's foreign policy to a halt, including stonewalling confirmation of ambassadors, which is supposed to be a fairly uneventful function. Perhaps most worrisome is the fact we have no ambassadors to China and Japan, despite the fact the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved them both. A small group of GOP senators is preventing a confirmation vote and demanding Biden change course on his policy in the meantime, according to Roll Call.

It's fair to point out that Biden has also been unusually slow in naming some candidates. Nominations for the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and Russia are still on hold. But can you really blame him? There doesn't appear to be any point. And even if they were nominated, they'd simply be in line behind some 50 others that Senate Republicans are refusing to move forward.

My opinion: Governing as an opposition party is part of politics. But refusing to play ball on routine duties, as Republicans are on these ambassadorial picks, is not governing. It's not good for the country, it's not good for us, it's not good for our allies, and it only sets a new low for what's an acceptable kind of obstructionist behavior in the Senate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats return the favor in kind the next chance they get. I find it all pretty loathsome.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Today, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, will testify before Congress on the impact his app has on kids. Republicans and Democrats have found bipartisan joy in questioning the heads of major social media outlets, and Mosseri could be in for a doozy: Numerous stories and research studies have come out recently about the negative impact Instagram has on the mental health of kids, teens and even adults. Mosseri announced before the hearing that the app was going to institute a "Take a Break" feature to alert someone who has been scrolling too long, as well as moving people off one topic they've been dwelling on too long. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 89. The number of instances of gunfire on school grounds between August and October of this year.
  • 33. The number of instances of gunfire on school grounds during the same period in 2019, the previous high for that timeframe.
  • 31. The number of states with child access prevention laws.
  • 11. The number of states with safe storage gun legislation.
  • 120.5. The number of firearms per 100 U.S. residents.

Have a nice day.

A "miracle baby" in Texas is going home for the holidays after being born 18 weeks early. Jimena "JC" Macias was due in September but born on April 29, weighing just 1 lb and 9 ounces. She was only 11 inches long. Her mother was just 22 weeks pregnant when she went into labor and was told the baby would not survive if she was born this early. Fortunately Macias was transferred to the Level III NICU at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, where she was put on a ventilator and had an IV placed in her umbilical cord to help keep her alive. Doctors called it a "miracle," and Macias, now almost seven months old, ended up making it home for Thanksgiving — where she'll be able to stay until Christmas while undergoing physical therapy.


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