Why the Oxford High shooting suspect was charged with terrorism

The charge was designed to address the harm caused by the shooter to those who suffered from the violent rampage but who were not killed or injured, prosecutors said.

Mourners gather near a makeshift memorial at Oxford High School on Wednesday. Nick Hagen/The New York Times

Michigan prosecutors acknowledge that their decision to file a terrorism charge against a 15-year-old suspected of opening fire on his classmates at a high school this week – killing four people and injuring seven others – was unusual for what has become an all-too-common tragedy in American schools.

“It’s not a usual, a typical charge,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said Wednesday. She explained that alleged gunman Ethan Crumbley would be charged as an adult with four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony – as well as one count of “terrorism causing death.”


But she said the charge was designed to address the harm caused by the shooter to those who suffered from the violent rampage but who were not killed or injured. “When we sat down and talked about the charges that were applicable in this case, the children [who were killed] and those that were injured – they are the victims in the first-degree murder charges and the assault with intent to murder, but what about all these other children?”

“What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks?” McDonald said at a news conference. “What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever set foot back in that school? Those are victims too, and so are their families, and so is the community. And the charge of terrorism reflects that.”

Under Michigan’s 2002 anti-terrorism act, prosecutors will have to prove that the shooting was “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence or affect the conduct of government or a unit of government through intimidation or coercion.”

Terrorism is not the only unusual charge the prosecutor’s office has considered as part of this case.


Officials have said that the father of the suspect bought the semiautomatic handgun used in the killings last Friday. While it is unclear how Crumbley may have obtained the gun from his father, McDonald said Wednesday that gun owners have a responsibility to secure their weapons – particularly when young people are involved – and that prosecutors will make a decision soon on whether to charge Crumbley’s parents.

Such a charge would be a rarity. Yet gun-control advocates say holding adults responsible is essential to combating the nation’s scourge of shootings by minors.

From the podium, McDonald said the shooting proves that “we need better gun laws.”

It’s a call echoed by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who gave a passionate speech against gun violence Wednesday – a clip of which had been viewed over 3 million times on Twitter as of Thursday morning.

Murphy, a vocal gun control advocate, said on the Senate floor that the Oxford shooting brought up memories of the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six staff members.

He accused his Republican colleagues of preserving the interests of the gun lobby over those of American children and said their defense of the sanctity of life in the debate about abortion rights rings hollow when they oppose stricter gun laws that could help prevent some mass shootings.


“Do not lecture us about the sanctity, the importance of life, when 100 people every single day are losing their lives to guns, when kids go to school fearful that they won’t return home because a classmate will turn a gun on them, when it is in our control whether this happens,” he said, addressing Republicans.

He said the Senate’s lack of action on gun control sends a “silent message of endorsement” to would-be mass shooters who “have convinced themselves that they can right perceived wrongs by firing a gun into a crowd.”

“We have become part of the problem,” Murphy added. “Our silence has become complicity.”

The sadistic motive of deriving pleasure from terrorizing others can be traced to other school shooters, said psychologist Peter Langman, the country’s foremost expert in school shootings and author of “Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike.

Langman, who has run an online database on school shooters for 13 years, pointed to the writings and comments of gunmen, including one of the 1999 Columbine High School murderers, Eric Harris, and Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014.

“To some extent, we have to read between the lines because perpetrators typically won’t lay it out explicitly that ‘I’m committing this attack because I want to intimidate others,'” Langman said. “I see a connection, though, for this desire for power, to feel like God.”

Still, Langman said, none of those shooters was prosecuted for terrorism. “I don’t recall that charge in any other school shooting I’ve studied,” he said.


While school shootings remain rare, there have been more in 2021 – 34 – than in any year since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database that tracks acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during regular school hours.

Tuesday’s mass killing in Oxford was the deadliest school shooting in more than three years.


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