When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold unleashed the firestorm that would forever be known as the Columbine Massacre, criticism of the parents from pundits and political leaders was savage.
How could the boys assemble an arsenal of weapons and devise an elaborate plan for a rampage at school without the parents knowing about it? Couldn’t they see their sons were spinning out? Shouldn’t the parents be held responsible?
Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Stone said at the time that the “parents should be held accountable for their kid’s actions” and openly entertained the possibility of filing charges.
Attorney General Janet Reno and Gov. Bill Owens threatened to prosecute the parents if they were found to have had any inkling of their sons’ plans.
In the days after the shootings, President Clinton proposed a host of regulations, including making it a felony for reckless parents to allow their children access to guns that ultimately are used to commit crimes.
It was high drama. Then nothing.
Over the subsequent weeks and months, investigators found that the boys had obtained the weapons illegally and there was no evidence that the parents of Harris and Klebold had any knowledge of the guns or the boys’ plans for using them.
As for Clinton’s proposed regulations, even the Democrats in Congress didn’t have the guts to take on the NRA, no matter how traumatized the nation was by the spectacle at Columbine High School.
Which brings us to Nov. 30, 2021, two decades and scores of school shootings later, four teenagers are dead and seven injured at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Mich. A 15-year-old suspect and his parents are in custody.
“I’m not the least bit surprised by any of it,” said state Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial.
This time the parents of the suspect didn’t just know their kid had a semi-automatic weapon designed for use by the military and law enforcement personnel; they bought it for him.
“Just got my new beauty today,” the suspect, Ethan Crumbley, said under a photo of the gun he posted on social media Nov. 26.
It’s chilling. And Sullivan supports the efforts to hold the parents responsible.
“I believe the actions that occurred at the gun shop on Black Friday with the boy and his father happen hundreds of times every single weekend across the U.S.,” Sullivan said. “Gun owners go out and skirt the laws (limiting a juvenile’s access to firearms). They don’t think they apply to them or are necessary for them.
“A great percentage of the time, their irresponsibility does not cause our community to suffer. But all it takes is one of them and their irresponsibility to create the consequences we had at Oxford High School. That’s what’s so troubling.”
And remember, Sullivan knows exactly how troubling it is. His political career began in abject grief after his 27-year-old son, Alex, was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012.
“Four kids are dead,” Sullivan said of the Oxford killings, “and the kids who saw that, the kids who heard that, the parents who buried their kids, the teachers, the administrators at that school will never be the same.”
Sullivan listened to the arraignment of James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of the suspect in the murders, and can barely contain his outrage. He talked about how they were summoned to the school on Nov. 30 to discuss disturbing images and messages found on Ethan’s desk and how cavalier they were about the teacher’s concerns.
They never mentioned the gun to school officials. They insisted he remain in school that day.
The shootings happened four hours later.
“Those parents walked out of that principal’s office and walked through the school. They looked at the other students, the teachers, the administrators and they didn’t care,” he said. “They knew they bought that gun for their boy and didn’t even care enough to ask him if it was in his backpack. They didn’t care enough to tell the school administrators they’d bought him a gun.”
Then when news reports were aired about an active shooter at Oxford, they had a pretty good idea who was responsible.
“Ethan, don’t do it,” Jennifer Crumbley texted.
“She knew it was her son who was the shooter,” Sullivan said. “And the whole façade of the father leaving work to go home and look for the gun. He was getting his bank records together and packing a bag to get out of town. That’s who they are.”
It’s what makes the myth of the “responsible gun owner” so hard for him to swallow. The whole premise requires everyone to suspend disbelief, including gun sellers. After all, what does an irresponsible gun buyer look like anyway?
In fact, the debate itself is meaningless. A father buys his son a weapon of war and four days later four kids are dead. It’s an insult to the grieving parents to even attempt to make a case about responsible gun ownership.
In a few weeks or maybe just a few days, the Oxford High School massacre will fade from public consciousness and Sullivan will go back to being a lonely voice for better, stronger, smarter regulation of firearms. He understands how people might not share his passion.
“It was 13 years from Columbine to the Aurora theater massacre,” he said. “I think back on it and wonder what actions were being taken that I didn’t notice. Who was talking that I wasn’t hearing.
“I didn’t understand back then. I didn’t know how bad it was.”
Then everything changed. “They murdered my son.”
Now, he won’t let the issue be swept aside.
When Sullivan was canvassing before his last election in 2020, he said he handed some campaign material to a guy who looked at it and said he had gone to school with Alex. He knew him back in the day.
“I was looking at the guy and thinking, ‘So that’s what a 35-year-old man looks like.’ He was standing right there, the same age as Alex would be.”
But Sullivan would never get the chance to see Alex grow older. It seems like a little thing but it’s not. It gnaws at him.
“We should be talking about this every single day,” he said. “We shouldn’t be afraid.
“When it happens to somebody else in our community, I want people to know there is one guy who will talk about this and talk about this and talk about this every chance he gets.”
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
NOTE: An earlier version of this column contained an incorrect location for Oxford High School. It is in Oxford Township, not Lansing.
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