Yet another horrific school shooting has hit America. Before the body count was even finalized in Uvalde, Texas, the media was blaming the usual suspects—guns, gun violence, the “gun lobby” (in the words of President Biden), bullying, the lack of funding for mental health-care programs, and the list goes on.
And while certainly all of these factors bear investigating, another has gone virtually ignored. The shooter, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, came from a broken home. According to El País, “Ramos lived with his two maternal grandparents.” His mother did not live with them, because she was “going through bad times,” according to a neighbor. His father “was never present in his life.”
This shouldn’t be surprising, although you wouldn’t know it from most news coverage of mass shootings. You literally have to scour the Internet to find reports of shooters’ broken family backgrounds. In far more cases than not, those who commit such atrocities have divorced, separated, or never-married parents. Remember Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in an African-American church in Charleston in 2015? He was born to divorced parents who had gotten together again long enough to conceive a child, then broke it off. Adam Lanza, who massacred twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School? His parents had separated in 2002, when Lanza was still in elementary school, and finally divorced in 2009. Indeed, according to one Heritage Foundation report, of the 25 most-cited mass shooters since Columbine (in 1999), 75% hail from what have traditionally been called broken homes.
In fact, 85% of imprisoned youth are from homes without fathers. Researchers have known for decades that marital breakdown breeds troubled children. A 2010 study by researchers at Towson University in Maryland tracking children from first grade through middle school found that “high levels of neighborhood violence and percentages of single males and female-headed households are related to an increase in aggressive behavior” in boys in the study. (For girls, the results are actually more pronounced.) Another 2010 study, this one published in European Child and Adolescent Psychology, found that both students who bullied and, interestingly, those on the other end of such bullying tended to come from households in which parents were divorced.
Similarly, a 2013 study from Norway found that the children of parental divorce tended to have greater incidence of psychological problems, including both internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety and externalizing problems such as aggression—facts that commentators on psychiatric illness in shooters tend to ignore. Another study, this one from 2005 and published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, found that adolescent children’s lack of attachment to their mothers was most strongly correlated to internalizing psychiatric problems. But their distance from their fathers was associated with greater incidence of “externalizing problems,” including “hyperactivity, impulsivity, aggression, and delinquency.”
These are only a handful—there are many more such studies. So why don’t we hear about these connections? We live in a selfish age, an age in which the needs of children are actively ignored in favor of the desires of adults. It’s an age in which a couple might decide to hook up and break up, marry and divorce, with a child or two thrown in here and there, and policymakers, psychiatrists, and physicians rush in to reassure them that their behavior will have no long-lasting effects on the kids. Everyone will be better off, so long as the parents are “happy.” All family forms are equal. Children are “resilient.”
But it’s all lies, lies evident in the violence of shootings like that at Uvalde this week. And so long as we perpetuate these lies, we will continue to be victims to such brutal outcomes.
(This article was adapted from a column appearing in SALVO 35.)