Cause of Violence: Guns or Family Breakdown?

Barb Wire

Another horrific mass killing, this time at a community college in Oregon. And once again President Obama preached against guns, proclaiming angrily that he would use this shooting for political ends. Again and again, when a man mows down innocent people, liberals put gun-ownership in their sights, which is like looking at the problem of teens who cut themselves and angrily proclaiming that the problem is easy access to razor blades. Women have access to guns too. If guns are the problem, then why aren’t any mass (or serial) killers women?

Of course, gun control and the Left’s obsession with killing the Second Amendment by a thousand regulatory cuts are political issues, but if the Left truly cared about protecting society from gun violence, they would look beyond the cheap, superficial, but good-for-rallying the troops issue of gun control. They would look at the deeper issue of family breakdown that likely contributes in some and perhaps many cases to mass killings and serial killings, and most certainly contributes to gang violence like that which plagues Obama’s adopted home of Chicago.

Perhaps guns aren’t the central problem. Perhaps the breakdown of the family inflicts incalculable harm on children. Perhaps the breakdown in the family renders boys less capable of responding in healthy ways to other trials in life. If only President Obama would use his bully pulpit to take our devotees of easy-peasy divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and fatherless and motherless homes to the woodshed, maybe he could actually do some good.

Here is a list of just American mass killers (yes, mass killers are found all over the world). Please note that not all of them used guns:

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Andrew Kehoe killed 38 elementary school children, 2 teachers, 4 other adults, and wounded 58 in Bath Township, Michigan in 1927. Kehoe used explosives.

His mother died when he was 5. His father remarried, and Kehoe had a poor relationship with his stepmother.

Howard Unruh killed 13 in Camden, New Jersey in 1941.

His parents separated when he was 9, and he was raised by only his mother.

Richard Speck killed 8 nursing students in Chicago in 1966. He used a knife.

Speck was close to his father who died when Speck was 6. His mother remarried a few years later. Speck’s stepfather was an emotionally abusive alcoholic with a criminal record.

Charles Whitman killed 16 people at the University of Texas in Austin in 1966.

His father emotionally and physically abused Whitman and his mother.

James Huberty killed 21 and wounded 19 at a McDonald’s in San Diego in 1984.

His mother abandoned the family when he was about 10.

James Ruppert killed 11 family members in 1975 in Hamilton, Ohio.

His mother told him she had wanted a girl. His father had a “violent temper and no affection” for James or his older brother Leonard. His father died when James was 12. His 14-year-old brother assumed the role of patriarch and bullied James.

George Hennard killed 23 and wounded 27 at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas in 1991.

Hennard’s childhood was turbulent and unstable as was his parent’s marriage which ended in divorce when Hennard was 27.

James Pough killed 9 and wounded 4 in 1990 in Jacksonville, Florida.

His father left Pough and his eight younger siblings when Pough was 11.

Timothy McVeigh killed 168 and injured 600 in Oklahoma City in 1995. He used explosives.

His mother walked out on the family when he was 10. He was raised by his father who worked nights. The children rarely saw their mother.

Michael McLendon killed 10 in Alabama in 2009.

After his parents divorced, he was raised by his aunt and uncle.

Adam Lanza killed 20 elementary school children, 6 staff members, and his mother in Newton, Connecticut in 2012.

His parents separated when he was 16 and divorced when he was 17.

Wade Michael Page killed 6 and wounded 4 at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Page’s parents divorced when he was young. His father remarried when Page was 10. His mother died when he was 13. Reportedly, Page did not get along with his father, and at some point in his school years, his father and stepmother moved out of state, leaving him to split his time between his aunt and his grandmother.

Dylann Roof killed 9 in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015.

Roof was raised in an unstable family in which his father verbally and physically abused his stepmother.

Chris Harper-Mercer killed 10 and wounded 9 in Roseburg, Oregon in 2015.

His parents separated when he was less than 1 year-old.

Twenty years ago, an article in the Washington Post offered a painful image of the future:

Psychologists have warned for years that young people like McVeigh born in the late 1960s, whose families fractured in record numbers, whose economic frustrations far exceed those of their parents, are unusually alienated and vulnerable to fringe movements. In this view, the social and economic upheavals of the last 20 years have planted a virus in American society with still unrealized capacity for damage.

The author may be wrong about one thing: It seems unlikely that economic frustrations could result in the desire to go on a killing spree. Economic frustrations may be the proximate cause or a contributing factor for those whose psychological and emotional needs were not met as children, thus leaving them unable to cope with life’s obstacles. But the ultimate cause is likely something deeper, more profound than fiscal insecurity.

Of course, only a small fraction of children from dysfunctional families become mass (or serial) killers, just as only a small fraction of mentally ill, bullied, shy, or gun-owning people become mass (or serial) killers. And some mass killers grow up in intact, functioning families. But could family breakdown contribute to the impulse to do violence in some cases? Might an intact family structure help prevent such desires in children who have other conditions that put them at risk for anti-social behavior? Is there not sufficient evidence to justify the inclusion of family breakdown as a possible contributing factor in news stories and presidential pronouncements about mass killings? Is there not sufficient evidence that family breakdown may contribute to mass killings to justify studies of its potential causal effect?

Perhaps the short shrift given to the potential effects of family breakdown on children, particularly boys, reflects both our deeply embedded easy-divorce cultural ethic and the selfishness of both Democrats and Republicans—including many Christians—who don’t want to look at the damage done to children through divorce. Mass killings and gang violence should lead us to ask what we are willing to sacrifice as individuals to protect our children from the harm of family breakdown and to protect society from the effects of such harm.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Laurie Higgins
Laurie Higgins has worked as the Cultural Analyst for the Illinois Family Institute ( since the fall of 2008. Prior to that, she worked full-time in the writing center of a suburban Chicago high school, where all four of her children attended. She is currently working on bulking up her stick arms by dead-lifting her five grandchildren--one at a time, of course.

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