Toxic Gun Culture Begins at Home

James and Jennifer Crumbley never anticipated that their then-15-year-old son, Ethan, would use the 9-millimeter Sig Sauer handgun Mr. Crumbley had bought — ostensibly as an early Christmas present — to kill four students at a Michigan high school. At least that’s the argument their lawyers made in court before Ms. Crumbley, last month, and Mr. Crumbley, almost two weeks ago, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in separate trials. Prosecutors argued that the Crumbleys did not do enough to secure the gun and ignored warning signs that Ethan was planning to use it.

After every mass shooting by a teenager at a school, there is an instinct to look to the shooter’s parents to understand what went wrong. In the case of the Crumbleys, this seems obvious: Ethan left disturbing journal entries fantasizing about shooting up the school, and stating that he had asked his parents for help with his mental health issues but didn’t get it. His father said the family had a gun safe but the safe’s combination was the default factory setting, 0-0-0.

One factor that’s gotten less attention, however, is how the Crumbleys’ attitudes and actions reflect an increasingly insidious gun culture that treats guns as instruments of defiance and rebellion rather than as a means of last resort.

I’ve been thinking about this case a lot because I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in a rural part of the Deep South where almost everyone I knew had guns in the house, unsecured, and mental illness was stigmatized and often went untreated. Church was considered a superior venue for counseling, and only “crazy” people sought professional help. If the evidence for criminal negligence is a failure to lock up a gun and ignoring signs of mental illness, many of the adults I grew up around would have been (and still would be) vulnerable to the same charges as the Crumbleys.

It’s convenient and comforting for many people to believe that if it had been their child, they’d have prevented this tragedy. But prison visiting rooms are full of good, diligent parents who never thought their kid would be capable of landing there.

My parents didn’t own a gun safe, but kept guns hidden away from us, which, like many gun owners at the time, they thought of as “secured.” The men in my family were all hunters and the guns they kept were hunting rifles, not AR-15s. (You can’t feed a family with deer meat that’s been blown to bits.) I knew my parents kept a handgun, too, but it was never shown to us, or treated as a shiny new toy.

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