The link between mass school shootings and absentee fathers has drawn renewed attention in the aftermath of the Uvalde school massacre, but even with Father’s Day fast approaching, not everyone is interested in exploring the issue.
Ask Sen. Ted Cruz when the Texas Republican broached the impact of cultural factors such as “broken homes, absent fathers” at the National Rifle Association meeting a week after the deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas, he said he was accused of shaming single mothers.
“It was interesting seeing some of the reactions of the left because it’s almost pathological where they come back and attack me and said, ‘Well, Cruz is attacking single moms,’” Mr. Cruz said on his “The Verdict” podcast. “No, I’m not. I’m saying that kids do better with dads.”
Gun control and school security jumped to the top of the legislative agenda after the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde last month, but calls are also rising for the nation’s leaders to grapple with the connection between fatherlessness and young men carrying out horrific attacks on vulnerable targets.
“Boys who hurt us are boys who hurt,” said Warren Farrell, an author of the 2019 book “The Boy Crisis.” “Yet both the boy crisis and boys’ experience of dad deprivation is almost completely ignored by schools, legislatures and the media.”
About 1 in 4 children live without a biological, adoptive or stepfather at home, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, and the problems associated with absentee dads are well documented. They include higher rates of quitting school, drug abuse, suicide, homelessness and criminal conduct.
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“The boy crisis resides where dads do not reside,” said Mr. Farrell, who served during the 1970s on the New York City board of the National Organization for Women.
Richard A. Warshak, a past professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said the gunmen responsible for this century’s deadliest school shootings whose background is known all experienced “some form of father deprivation.”
“Given the pattern of father deprivation among mass school shooters, it is reasonable to see a link between the family background and the crimes,” said Mr. Warshak, author of “Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.”
That number appears to include the Uvalde shooter, who left his mother’s house this year to move in with his grandmother. His father, Salvador Ramos Sr., lived with his girlfriend and said he had not spent much time with his son lately because of the pandemic and his job out of town.
“My mom tells me he probably would have shot me too because he would always say I didn’t love him,” Mr. Ramos told The Daily Beast.
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Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in the attack on Robb Elementary School. The gunman, who first injured his grandmother by shooting her in the face, was fatally shot by a Border Patrol tactical unit.
Peter Langman, an expert on the psychology of school gunmen, said the shooters fall into three categories: psychopathic, psychotic and traumatized. The traumatized shooters are those who grew up in “chronically dysfunctional families.”
“In the case of many traumatized shooters, the fathers have often been abusive and/or absent,” said Mr. Langman, who runs the School Shooters website.
In the 2015 book, also titled “School Shooters,” he said he presented 24 juvenile shooters: 42% were traumatized, 29% were psychopathic and 29% were psychotic.
Not everyone agrees on whether a particular gunman was father-deprived. Mr. Warshak includes the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter because his father worked overseas for the first five years of the boy’s life. Mr. Langman said the father was an involved parent and visited his son weekly at college.
In addition, two of the most notorious gunmen, the 1999 Columbine High School killers, came from two-parent households in good neighborhoods.
“Finally, no matter how many factors are common to mass shooters, we are not able to explain why these perpetrators chose to commit their horrific acts,” said Mr. Warshak. “Millions of children who grow up without positive father involvement, and suffer adverse life events, become law-abiding, productive and nonviolent adults. Mass school shootings occur with such extremely low frequency that any single act is virtually impossible to predict.”
At the same time, he said, “if deprivation of a positive father-child relationship is one risk factor, this highlights the importance of public policy that favors the development and maintenance of high-involvement, high-quality fathering.”
Lawmakers, especially Republicans, are increasingly calling for more focus on social and cultural factors, including fatherhood, to combat mass shootings.
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, created a stir when he raised the issue at a May 25 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Why is our culture suddenly producing so many young men who want to murder innocent people?” he asked. “It raises questions like, you know, could things like fatherlessness, the breakdown of families, isolation from civil society, or the glorification of violence be contributing factors?”
Mr. Lee added, “instead, the left once again is calling for more gun control.”
He was rebuked by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who said it was “almost a case of blaming the victims and not blaming the person who is able to walk in and buy a weapon that should be used in a war zone, not a school zone.”
Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research, said the research “doesn’t provide much support for the idea that ‘fatherlessness’ contributes to negative outcomes that could plausibly drive mass shootings.”
“Mass shootings are extreme events, so we do not have much demographic or survey data to look at, but there is no evidence-based reason for believing that mass shootings are caused by widows, other single mothers, grandmothers who raised their grandchildren, or lesbian couples, all of which are examples of ‘fatherless’ household arrangements,” he said in a June 8 post.
Rep. Beth Van Duyne, Texas Republican, linked fatherlessness to the expansion of government-welfare programs.
“Why are we not having that conversation? Why are we not looking at ways that the government, the federal government, has actually incentivized these single-family homes, where back when we started increasing welfare, increasing entitlement programs, we were actually paying single moms to not have fathers in the home?” she said on Fox News.
Ms. Van Duyne called it “lazy politics right now to just talk about gun control, without looking at the solutions that actually would have led to preventing this horrible tragedy.”
A few states have taken action to encourage involved fathers. In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed a $70 million bill with “educational programs, mentorship programs and one-on-one support to encourage responsible and involved fatherhood.”
“We cannot legislate fatherhood, accountability or character, but we can provide supports for fathers to equip and encourage them to take an active role in the lives of their children,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Republican.
In 2018, Kentucky became the first state to enact a law creating a presumption of shared child custody, with exceptions for cases of abuse and neglect, instead of designating a primary custodial parent.
Republican Reps. Burgess Owens of Utah and Byron Donalds of Florida introduced a resolution this week that called for “researching and understanding the root causes of fatherlessness, and crafting public policy that supports and encourages fully engaged fatherhood.”
“You take the father out of society, you’re going to have a disaster,” philanthropist and former NFL player Jack Brewer said on Fox News. “And unfortunately, in our country right now, we are witnessing that disaster.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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