Criminal Law

Behind the Charges Against Michigan Shooter’s Parents

The parents of the suspect in a shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan that left four students dead this week are facing involuntary manslaughter charges in those deaths. For a long time, gun control advocates have been calling for criminal charges to be brought against people who illegally provided guns to mass shooters. But this case appears to be the first time a prosecutor has decided to criminally charge the shooter’s parents.

The shooter in Michigan was given a 9mm Sig Sauer handgun as an early Christmas present by his parents. According to various reports the gun was kept in an unlocked drawer in the parents’ bedroom; the parents’ lawyers are saying that the drawer was locked.

Certainly this case has an unusual set of facts as the parents had been called into school on that day and told that their son was acting erratically. They were shown a drawing made by the shooter that conveyed violent messages and an intent to harm fellow students. School administrators wanted the parents to take their son home and get him into counseling immediately but the parents refused and the shooter was allowed back in class. The school had also notified the parents a few days earlier that their son had been using the computer to search for ammunition. According to school officials, the mother’s only response was to text her son ““LOL I’m not mad at you, You have to learn not to get caught.”

Mugshot of shooter’s parents. Do you think their lawyers told them to smile?

Those are essentially the facts that form the basis of the charge of involuntary manslaughter: (1) They knew their son had access to a gun; (2) the gun was not secured; (3) they knew their son had violent ideations against his classmates; (4) they had been told that their son was behaving erratically. So lets look at how the law in Michigan defines voluntary and involuntary manslaughter:

  1. That the defendant caused the death of the deceased victim, that the deceased individual died as a result of the defendant’s action.
  2. That the defendant either:
    1. intended to kill the victim
    2. intended to do great bodily harm to the victim,
    3. created 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.
  3. That the defendant caused the death of the victim without justification or lawful excuse.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when an individual kills another person without intent, or unintentionally, relying on the third definition which is essentially recklessly causing the death of another.

One problem for the prosecution is that Michigan has no law requiring gun owners to keep their guns safe from minors or others who do not have the legal right to possess the gun. Lots of states (like NY) do have such laws but Michigan is a gun-friendly, hunter-friendly, state so it does not have restrictive gun laws. So the parents broke no laws even if they kept the loaded gun in an unlocked drawer.

But the parents knew at the time they were told about their son’s erratic behavior and violent drawings that they had gifted him a dangerous weapon that was readily available to him. Was it not reckless to keep quiet and not tell the school to search their son’s backpack and locker for the weapon? Even when they got home that day they allegedly did not search for the weapon until after the shooting.

It’s a novel case and the parents certainly bear moral and civil responsibility for their actions. As for criminal liability, I think their conduct and omissions may meet the technical language of the involuntary manslaughter charge. The hardest element will be proving that “as a result of the defendant’s actions he or she knew that serious harm or death would likely result.” Was serious harm “likely?” Of course, if the jury is full of strong Second Amendment advocates, an acquittal is more possible, after all “Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People” is their favorite motto.

Let’s hope that this case will spur Michigan and other gun-friendly states to pass laws requiring the safe storage of guns and ammunition. It’s a common sense regulation that could have prevented a tragedy here.

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