Last week’s school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, that left four students dead was, sadly, not terribly surprising. There were six U.S. school shootings in the month of November alone. Some school shootings, like the horrific one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February of 2018, which left 17 dead, get widespread attention. While others, like the one at Marshall County High School near Benton, Kentucky, where 16 people were shot just three weeks earlier (only two of whom died), are mere footnotes in our unhappy mass shooting history.
But what may have already set Oxford apart from past attacks is how much of the public focus is not just on the 15-year-old perpetrator but also on his parents, who have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Given how James and Jennifer Crumbley not only provided the firearm and failed to properly supervise their son Ethan — even as the school expressed concerns about his antisocial behavior — this is a welcome, if overdue, turn of events.
But, as long as we’re taking inventory of irresponsible behavior involving guns, there needs to also be a recognition that the Crumbleys’ cavalier attitude toward deadly weapons is hardly unique within our society. The American gun culture of the 21st century isn’t just about defending gun ownership and the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it’s also become — in too many cases — an endorsement of lax behavior around firearms. Politicians who once supported gun rights by pointing to responsible hunters who kept shotguns under lock and key, now prefer to wave around military-style assault weapons or other high-powered weaponry ill-suited to hunting or even self-defense (and often the preferred choice of mass shooters) in inappropriate places as some kind of demonstration of how they oppose gun control measures.
The latest example: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, on Saturday posted on Twitter a Christmas photo with all seven of his family members smiling and holding a military-style weapon. The caption read: “Merry Christmas! ps. Santa, please bring ammo.” This was just five days after Oxford. Naturally, the more outrageous members of the GOP felt an obligation to join in, with U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert among those expressing immediate approval. Other members of Congress were quick to condemn it but few with an “R” after their name. One of the most compelling responses came from Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter at Parkland; he replied to Congressman Massie on Twitter that “since we are sharing family photos, here are mine. One is the last photo that I ever took of Jaime, the other is where she is buried because of the Parkland school shooting.”
This isn’t about illegal gun ownership or high homicide rates. Baltimore has plenty of all that, with none of it driven by a congressman’s family photo album. But treating guns like playthings in the popular culture does send a harmful message to families far and wide that firearms are fun and cool, and tossing them around like you were in a fantasy action movie is no big deal. Would we pose for Christmas with suicide bombs strapped to our chest? With vials of small pox or nuclear missiles? This isn’t just about bad taste, it’s about harmful practices. An estimated 60% of gun deaths are a product of suicide, compared to 36% that are classified as homicides. Gun owners who keep their weapons under lock and key are less likely to experience such tragedy in their homes.
But at some point, proposing new gun safety laws won’t accomplish much. First, because a lot of Americans continue to oppose them (Gallup last month reported that just 52% of Americans support stricter gun laws, the lowest percentage since 2014), but second, because putting more such laws on the books won’t help if Americans choose not to follow them. Michigan law does not allow anyone under age 18 to possess a handgun unless under adult supervision. Yet that restriction is meaningless if people like the Crumbley’s choose to ignore their obligations, warning their child not to get caught, for example, when looking at ammunition online while attending class.
What’s needed is for people who believe in responsible gun ownership to stand up and condemn those who so easily dismiss the obligations that come with gun rights. There are already more guns than people in this country, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. What could change is for more of us to treat guns as the dangerous weapons they are and not props or playthings that they are not.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.