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Opinion Charges against the parents of the Michigan school shooter should serve as an example

Thousands from the community of Oxford, Mich., gather for a vigil on Dec. 3 to remember the students killed at Oxford High School. (Seth Herald/Reuters)

Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the author of “Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World.”

A Michigan father reportedly took his 15-year-old shopping on Black Friday for a SIG Sauer semiautomatic handgun. Four days later, that uniquely American children’s gift became the impetus for a uniquely American tragedy: a mass shooting at a school. Police say that after accessing the unsecured gun from his parents’ bedroom nightstand, the teen opened fire at Oxford High School, killing four students and wounding seven others.

Similar scenarios have played out again and again at American schools over the past 20 years. But this time, significantly, a Michigan prosecutor took the rare step of holding the shooter’s parents accountable for the role they may have played in enabling the massacre. The charges should serve as an example for other law enforcement officers across the country.

Karen McDonald, prosecutor for Oakland County, Mich., held a news conference to announce the charges, calling the parents culpable for giving their son easy access to an unsecured gun while simultaneously ignoring every warning sign that he was in crisis. Even though Michigan does not have a secure-storage law requiring gun owners to keep their firearms locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition, McDonald charged the parents with four counts of involuntary manslaughter each, with a possible penalty of up to 15 years in prison. “It’s the strongest possible charge that we could prove that there’s probable cause to charge,” McDonald said. (The parents have pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

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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. 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. 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.

Read a letter to the editor responding to this op-ed.

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, including new laws our organization helped pass this year in Colorado, Oregon and Maine. 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.

Every nation is home to troubled teens, but only the United States gives them easy access to arsenals. That’s why between August and October of this year, there were at least 89 instances of gunfire on school grounds, leaving 15 people dead and 63 others wounded. That’s the highest number of shooting instances for comparable time periods since our organization started tracking these shootings in 2013. The spike was significant, nearly triple the previous high of 33 instances during the same period in 2019.

We know what we must do to solve this problem; the research and data are clear. Instead of relying on reactive and unproven stopgaps to mitigate the next school shooting, we must demand our elected officials act now to pass lifesaving gun-safety laws. And we must make sure parents, relatives and guardians hear the message loud and clear that secure gun storage is part of being a responsible gun owner and are given the information and training on how to do it.

It’s the job of everyone, from our local schools up to the U.S. Department of Education, to spread this lifesaving information. No school should ever hesitate to explain why secure gun storage is so important or ask about access to guns in its efforts to keep schools safe.

If we broaden the conversation beyond how schools should respond once a school shooting has already unfolded, and focus on prevention, this time can be different.