Battle Creek

Battle Creek leaders reflect on Jennifer Crumbley verdict and Michigan's new gun legislation

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — The conviction of Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan Crumbley's mother, in connection with the gun deaths of four students at Oxford High School came one week before members of the Michigan State University campus participated in events on February 13 commemorating the first anniversary of the shooting deaths on the campus of three students.
The daylong observances on the MSU campus took place against the backdrop of new gun laws in Michigan that went into effect on Tuesday. These new laws are in response to the MSU shootings but have been at the forefront for Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the state’s Democratic legislators for some time.
“The MSU shootings one year ago tomorrow is what precipitated this, in addition to priorities that the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses had strategized for the first three months in 2023,” said State Rep. Jim Haadsma on Monday. His district includes the City of Battle Creek.
The new gun laws include requirements for universal background checks, safe gun storage, and temporary removal of guns from people that a judge deems dangerous. The safe storage laws put a lot more onus on parents to keep their guns out of the hands of their children with exceptions of when the guns are being used for hunting or target practice — ideally in the presence or under the supervision of a responsible adult.
Michigan Representative Jim Haadsma
The new safe storage laws come at the heels of a case that has drawn national attention. Setting a historic precedent regarding parental responsibility, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, the shooter sentenced last year to life without parole, are being held accountable by the courts.
Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert says the State's new gun legislation is letting parents know that it’s their “duty to have their guns locked up and that you’re responsible for your kids.”
Of Jennifer Crumbley’s guilty verdict, he says, “It probably was the correct verdict. If you have a child with that much need and you know there are strong concerns about his behavior, but you let him have a gun anyway, that’s troubling.”
The jury in the trial of Jennifer Crumbley was presented with evidence demonstrating that she did not take responsibility for her son and his well-being. Included in the evidence was the purchase of a handgun for her son as a Christmas gift from her and her husband. That gun was used to kill three students and injure six other students and a teacher in November 2021.
Haadsma, an attorney in private practice in Battle Creek, says he was somewhat surprised by the verdict even though prosecutors were able to connect and show proof of the Crumbley’s indifference in parenting in regards to indifference for the lives of others impacted by their son.
“The only witness offered up by the defense was Jennifer Crumbley who testified,” Haadsma says. “There just wasn’t a lot of defense to all of the evidence of recklessness in parenting.”
On Feb. 7, Jennifer Crumbley was convicted on four counts of involuntary manslaughter which each carry a maximum of 15 years in prison. Her husband, James, is facing the same charges as his wife with his trial scheduled to begin on March 5.
Calhoun County Prosecutor David GilbertGilbert says he isn’t expecting an uptick in cases being referred to his office as a result of these new gun laws. He says he’s aware of one case in Calhoun County involving a juvenile who shot someone and says accidental discharge of firearm cases don’t make it to his office.
The new laws “might stop some things,” Gilbert says. “Most homicides are committed with illegally possessed guns and juveniles are not getting them from their parents. They’re getting them somewhere else.”
He sees the new package of laws as “The Legislature trying to make sure people's gun rights are protected while at the same time protecting our kids.”
In his role as a State Representative, Haadsma says he thinks the safe storage law that was among the package of gun laws passed is going to put much more responsibility and duty on a parent to safely store guns so their kids aren’t playing with guns or bringing guns to school “because if that happens they’re going to be prosecuted under these safe storage laws.”

As so often happens in the aftermath of these shootings, there’s a lot of hand wringing without meaningful action. The passage of these gun laws in 2023 has changed that narrative, according to Haadsma.
“Universal background checks and safe storage are long-overdue steps we are proud to take today that will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and domestic abusers and children in the home,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer in a press release issued in April 2023. "I want to thank my partners in the legislature for getting this done, the advocates who fought so hard to make this happen, and every Michigander impacted by gun violence who shared their stories. We will keep working together to prevent mass shootings, reduce gun violence, and save lives.” 
As a parent of four adult children ages 24-32 and grandfather of two, Haadsma says the passage of the gun laws caused him to think about the significant parental duty that exists and makes that clear to parents who may have been indifferent to their child’s mental health or safe gun storage in their homes.
“It sends a signal to parents that you can’t allow your children to grow up as if they were raised by wolves and then have opportunities to act out because of your reckless indifference.”
Parental accountability and its impact on parents without resources
Based on media reports and evidence presented by prosecutors during Jennifer Crumbley’s trial, she and her husband had the financial resources to address issues with their son that others, including school officials, observed and identified. 
“It made me think that we need a wider safety net for our children and there is a real need for parental support,” says Kathy Szenda Wilson, Founder and Co-Executive Director of Pulse at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, of the guilty verdict. 

Kathy Szenda Wilson, Founder and Co-Executive Director of Pulse at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment ResearchShe says that a witness for the prosecution quoted in the transcript of Jennifer Crumbley’s trial said, “Ethan was the equivalent of a feral child.”
Too often, Szenda Wilson says that the warning signs with young people like Ethan Crumbley are right under our noses without us even seeing it.

“How many people along the way saw warning signs with Ethan and felt like it was not their place to say anything?” she asks. “We need to support each other in this thing called parenting. Parenting is hard and we all need each other to get through it. The more isolated we’ve become the harder it’s gotten.”
Prosecutors in Jennifer Crumbley’s trial cited that both she and her husband worked outside of the home and did not lack financial resources, Haadsma says.
“The facts in this case suggest that they were misappropriating their attention to horses, skiing, and other things that were self-absorbed. Their enthusiasm did not extend to parenting their son. He was allowed to grow up neglected.”
But, what about parents who don’t have the financial means and access to resources to ensure that their children are in safe spaces with trusted and caring adults looking after them? These are the people Szenda Wilson is especially concerned about.
The verdict, she says, potentially opens a door to adding more stress onto families which is especially challenging for parents who are working two and three jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table and don’t have access to safe, affordable quality childcare options.
Those parents may feel that they don’t know how else to survive while recognizing the risk that their children may feel neglected.
Some of the children who return to an empty house after school have access to the Internet and may not be emotionally or mentally equipped to handle what they see or hear which increases the potential for them to be exposed to things that may not be healthy for their development, Szenda Wilson says.
“If you’ve got a child in a child care center or any school is it possible these people could have picked up on signs that would lead to early intervention,” asks Szenda Wilson. “The more eyes you have on a child, the more opportunities there are to intervene. Making childcare more affordable for families reduces so many risks. If we can make childcare match the needs of families there is less potential for neglect and things parents may not know are happening.”
But, this won’t happen until the number of childcare slots catches up with the demand. There’s a lack of public and political will to provide the funds for this care, Szenda Wilson says.
“The more we ignore this and don’t do anything about this, the more it costs all of us,” she says.

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.