School Shooters and Broken Homes

February 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Suzanne Venker knows what’s wrong with America’s boys – broken homes.

A few days after the massacre at the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she wrote at Fox News (here)

Broken homes, or homes without a physically and emotionally present mother and father, are the cause of most of society’s ills. “Unstable homes produce unstable children,” writes Peter Hasson at The Federalist.

He adds, “On CNN’s list of the “27 Deadliest Mass Shootings In U.S. History,” seven of those shootings were committed by young males since 2005. Of the seven, only one—Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho — was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.”

I’ll get to the data in a minute. But I confess, my personal reaction was something resembling nostalgia. “Broken homes.” Reading that phrase was like turning on the radio and hearing The Mamas and the Papas — so popular back in the sixties, and then . . . What ever did become of them? To see if it was just my selective attention, I checked Google n-grams.

I don’t know why broken homes descended the charts so rapidly. Maybe because of its implicit moral condemnation. Broken things are no good. Either try to repair them or toss them out. Also, it was no longer just the poor who were vulnerable to having the finger of blame pointed at them. More middle-class people were getting divorced and breaking their homes. Or maybe the rising wave of feminism raised consciousness that the phrase blamed women. It was a slightly more subtle way of saying that a woman alone would raise children that were a menace to society.

Conservatives at Fox, The Federalist, and elsewhere were not swept up in this revisionist thinking.For them, broken homes remain the eternal bad guy.

As for those mass shootings, Philip Cohen tweeted this chart of the top ten – the most deadly.

Only Paddock and Huberty grew up in fatherless homes.

But what about the boys like Nikolas Cruz, the ones who are angry or resentful at their schools – the teachers who put them down, the students who bullied or rejected them – and come back armed with guns? It turns out we have some data, though it’s not up-to-date. After the Columbine shooting of 1999, the Secret Service and the Department of Education did an extensive study of school shooters. Their report covered 41 shooters involved in 37 school shootings from December 1974 to May 2000. There was a summary recently in The Conversation (here):

While most attackers – 96 percent – were male, the report found that there “is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” . . . Most came from intact families, were doing well in school and were not loners. [emphasis added]
One problem with all these studies is sample size. Mass killing and school shootings are rare events. With Cohen’s sample of 10 or Hasson’s 27 or the Secret Services’s 41, only the widest differences (e.g, between males and females) gives us any ability to generalize. For other comparisons  (e.g., broken vs. unbroken homes), the sample, even in the US, is too small. This is one case where a too-small sample is, on the whole, a good thing. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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