Another shooting, another son of divorce. From Adam Lanza, who killed 26 children and adults a year ago at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., to Karl Pierson, who shot a teenage girl and killed himself this past Friday at Arapahoe High in Centennial, Colo., one common and largely unremarked thread tying together most of the school shooters that have struck the nation in the last year is that they came from homes marked by divorce or an absent father. From shootings at MIT (i.e., the Tsarnaev brothers) to the University of Central Florida to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s “list of U.S. school attacks” involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.
This is not to minimize the importance of debates about gun control or mental health when it comes to understanding these shootings. But as the nation seeks to make sense of these senseless shootings, we must also face the uncomfortable truth that turmoil at home all too often accounts for the turmoil we end up seeing spill onto our streets and schools.
The social scientific evidence about the connection between violence and broken homes could not be clearer. My own research suggests that boys living in single mother homes are almost twice as likely to end up delinquent compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their father. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has written that “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of variations in urban violence across cities in the United States.” His views are echoed by the eminent criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, who have written that “such family measures as the percentage of the population divorced, the percentage of households headed by women, and the percentage of unattached individuals in the community are among the most powerful predictors of crime rates.”
Why is fatherlessness such a big deal for our boys (almost all of these incidents involve boys)? Putting the argument positively, sociologist David Popenoe notes that “fathers are important to their sons as role models. They are important for maintaining authority and discipline. And they are important in helping their sons to develop both self-control and feelings of empathy toward others, character traits that are found to be lacking in violent youth.” Boys, then, who did not grow up with an engaged, attentive, and firm father are more vulnerable to getting swept up in the Sturm und Drang of adolescence and young adulthood, and in the worst possible way.
Of course, most boys who grow up in a home without their father turn out okay. They pick up the right cues from a conscientious high-school soccer coach, flourish under the watchful eye of a devoted grandfather, or benefit from the consistent discipline of a strong single mother. But every year enough fatherless boys fall prey to the ministrations of a gang or the rage induced by a high-school bully or the emotional fallout of painful divorce to end up causing real harm to themselves or the members of their communities. So, if the nation is serious about ending the scourge of school shootings, it must also get serious about strengthening the families that are our first line of defense in preventing our boys from falling into a downward spiral of rage, hopelessness, or nihilism that can end in the kind of senseless violence that Karl Pierson, a son of divorce, visited upon Arapahoe High this past Friday.
— W. Bradford Wilcox, who was raised by a single mother, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @WilcoxNMP.