After a school shooter murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, the calls by liberals for new gun control laws were predictable, and received blanket coverage in the mainstream media.
Gun rights activists, in another unsurprising response, resisted efforts to blame the weapon rather than the killer, promoting instead ideas like arming teachers to defend their students.
I’ve been heartened to see that a number of pro-family conservatives have pointed out a third factor that must be addressed when examining violence in our society—the role of family structure, and specifically the negative effects of fatherlessness on boys and young men. The Parkland shooter (whose name I choose not to publicize) was fatherless, just like many other perpetrators of mass murders. Yet most of the media have not focused on this issue.
Susan L. M. Goldberg was one of the first to raise the issue, at PJ Media. Former Sen. Rick Santorum also raised it in a CNN interview. Unfortunately, one statistic that was cited multiple times turned out to be unverified (at this writing, it lives on in a headline at Patheos: “Of the 27 Deadliest Mass Shooters, 26 of Them Had One Thing in Common.”) Paul Kengor, a scrupulous scholar from Grove City College, apologized for having cited this number in a piece in Crisis Magazine. After studying the available (albeit incomplete) data more closely, Kengor said that
[W]e found maybe four or five of the 27 shooters that we could definitively conclude (without doubt) had been raised in an intact family, or a family that included the biological dad at home, or a biological father who was consistently at home. . . .
At this point, however, what is clear is the vast majority of shooters came from broken families without a consistent biological father throughout their rearing and development. Very few had good, stable, present dads.
(I would also note that the CNN list of the “deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history,” starting in 1949 and apparently first compiled in 2013, has now been updated to include 34 incidents, not 27. Only four of those, however, have been in schools, and another three at colleges.)
What is perhaps more compelling than the anecdotal evidence from the most extreme events is the overall data regarding the link between fatherlessness and crime and violence. Here is edited data I accessed from the National Fatherhood Initiative in 2015:
Father Factor in Emotional and Behavioral Problems
- Children born to single mothers show higher levels of aggressive behavior than children born to married mothers. Source: Journal of Marriage and Family, 2007.
. . .
Father Factor in Crime
- A study of 109 juvenile offenders indicated that family structure significantly predicts delinquency.
Source: Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2000.
- [H]igher social encounters and frequent communication with nonresident biological fathers decreased adolescent delinquency.
Source: Child Development, 2007.
- [A] more positive father-child relationship predicts a reduced risk of engagement in multiple first risky behaviors. The positive influence of the father-child relationship on risk behaviors seemed to be stronger for male than for female adolescents.
Source: Journal of Family Issues, 2006.
- [I]f the number of fathers is low in a neighborhood, then there is an increase in acts of teen violence. Source: Journal of Marriage and Family, 2005.
- In a study of INTERPOL crime statistics of 39 countries, it was found that single parenthood ratios were strongly correlated with violent crimes. Source: Cross-Cultural Research, 2004.
NFI also offers these graphics as free downloads:
An infographic from the National Center for Fathering reports the following:
Fatherless children are:
- 11 times more likely to have violent behavior
- 20 times more likely to be incarcerated
- 70% of adolescents in juvenile correctional facilities come from fatherless homes
- 60% of rapists were raised in fatherless homes
It’s clear we have a problem of what we might call “prodigal dads” in our society. (Writer Doug Mainwaring used that term in a piece last year in Public Discourse, “May I Please Speak to My Daddy?”)
More powerful, though, than statistics may be a three-minute film produced recently by students at Gordon College, an evangelical school in Massachusetts (full disclosure: my son is one of those students). If you want to illustrate the pain of fathers and children who are separated, consider sharing “Prodigal.”