Gun control activists are quick to blame mass shootings on the proliferation of firearms, but are less likely to point to the proliferation of fatherless households.
Yet research shows that school shooters tend to come from broken homes, where one or more parent is absent, addicted or abusive.
Warren Farrell, co-author of the just-released “The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It,” said the frequency at which fathers are absent has been devastating for the development of boys. He pointed to research showing that boys without fathers fare worse than boys with fathers on more than 70 different metrics.
“They’re much more likely to drink, much more likely to do drugs, much more likely to be depressed, much more likely to be suicidal, much more likely to be violent, much more likely to be in prison,” Mr. Farrell said. “And they’re also much more likely to commit mass shootings.”
Mr. Farrell is the author of several books about male and female behavior. He’s the chair of the Commission to Create a White House Counsel on Boys and Men, and in June he will talk to the U.S. Department of Education about a program to increase the number of male teachers in early education.
In “The Boy Crisis,” co-authored with John Gray, Mr. Farrell turned his attention to why boys are falling behind girls educationally, socially and in terms of mental health.
The book was published weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed, and comes amid an acrimonious national conversation about how to prevent similar massacres from occurring.
Mr. Farrell said a boy who grows up without a father is rarely given sufficient boundary enforcement from a young age. This leads to the inability to postpone gratification and do well in school and athletics compared to other boys, which in turn causes him to resent his peers and authority figures.
These feelings are only exacerbated as he enters adolescence and girls reject him, causing him to retreat into video games and pornography.
“You can imagine how the fantasy of being able to shoot all these people who have rejected him is appealing,” Mr. Farrell said. “Being for once in his life recognized and talked about all over the world by people wondering about his motivations.”
Mr. Farrell said social, economic and technological changes have also made it more difficult for boys to find purpose in life. He said boys in the old days found purpose in becoming “disposable,” either in war or in the workplace.
“Today, there’s a purpose void, because you don’t need as many boys in war, and both girls and boys share the potential for being breadwinners,” he said. “When that purpose void combines with fatherlessness, boys don’t have a way of being guided to a more nuanced sense of purpose.”
“The Boy Crisis” builds on a body of research documenting the connection between broken homes and school shootings.
Peter Langman, an expert on the psychology of school shooters, compiled data that showed the vast majority came from households characterized by divorce and separation, abuse and neglect, alcoholism and drug addiction.
“Out of this sample of 56 school shooters, only 10 (18%) grew up in a stable home with both biological parents,” Mr. Langman wrote in a 2016 article. “In other words, 82% of the sample either grew up in dysfunctional families or without their parents together (for at least part of their lives).”
Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland, Florida, shooter, fits the profile. He was given up for adoption at birth, and his adoptive father suffered a fatal heart attack when he was just 5 years old. Just a few months before the shooting, his adoptive mother died of pneumonia.
One of the ways fatherlessness manifests itself in America is in the form of mass shootings, Mr. Farrell said, because guns are comparatively easy to access in the United States than in the rest of the developed world.
But the symptoms of the boy crisis present themselves in different nations in different ways.
Studies of imprisoned Islamic State, or ISIS, recruits, for instance, have shown that they were often deprived of fathers or otherwise grew up in broken homes. The terrorist organization gives boys, especially fatherless ones, what they were unable to find elsewhere: the ability to sacrifice themselves for a supposedly higher cause.
“ISIS fills many of the parameters sought by boys without dads: purpose, excitement, and identity,” a passage from “The Boy Crisis” reads. “For some, religion may represent but one more authority to distrust. But for others, religion offers a structure that strengthens their sense of purpose and mission.”
Mr. Farrell said prudent gun regulations may help to reduce the number of mass shootings. But he said focusing solely on guns misses the larger, more complex picture about what is happening.
“There is the ability to buy these guns,” he said. “But guns are not the underlying problem; they are the magnifier.”