In a Senate hearing the day after the Uvalde, Texas, massacre, Utah Sen. Mike Lee wondered aloud if fatherlessness and the breakdown of families are among the root causes for mass shootings in the United States. The shooter’s parents are not currently married, and the 18-year-old had been living with his grandparents.
It is difficult to directly assess this possibility because government-supported data collection on gun violence has been essentially banned by Congress through the Dickey Amendment for more than two decades. Nevertheless, as a sociologist of family and fatherhood, I can tell you that the best available evidence suggests that neither is responsible for the increase in these horrific events.
Those arguing that fatherlessness is associated with gun violence often point to the United States’ high nonmarital birthrates. Yet the U.S. is not unique in this, nor is its nonmarital birthrate particularly high among rich nations. In fact, Sweden, France and Great Britain all have higher nonmarital birthrates than we do.
According to The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, about 40% of births in the United States occur outside marriage. By comparison, more than 50% of births in Great Britain, nearly 55% of births in Sweden and greater than 60% of births in France are nonmarital. These nations have significantly lower gun death rates than the United States.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the U.S. averages more than 12 gun deaths per 100,000 people each year. The comparable number in Great Britain is 0.23 per 100,000. In Sweden, it’s 1.6 per 100,000; in France, it’s 2.8 per 100,000.
Rates of homicides by firearm are also significantly higher in the U.S. than these other nations. Further, my own analysis of nonmarital births and gun violence rates in the 39 richest nations in the world indicates that there is no statistically significant relationship between the two.
Nonresidential fatherhood is another way to conceptualize fatherlessness. In the United States, about one-quarter of children do not live with their fathers. This rate is not an outlier among rich nations. Rates of nonresidential fatherhood are very similar in the United Kingdom and Sweden and slightly lower in France, for example.
Moreover, we should not conflate nonresidential status and fatherlessness. In the United States, many nonresidential fathers are highly involved and engaged with their children. While less involved, on average, than residential fathers, nonresidential dads are still highly engaged in caregiving, spend significant amounts of time with their children and show high levels of emotional availability. These patterns suggest that paternal residential status is a poor proxy for the concept of fatherlessness.
Another way to conceptualize the “breakdown of families,” as Sen. Lee phrases it, is to think about divorce rates. In the United States, the divorce rate in 2020 was 2.7 per 1,000 in the population. The comparable figures in most rich nations throughout the world are not significantly higher.
Importantly, divorce rates in the U.S. have been declining since the 1980s, while the number of mass shooting and gun deaths have been increasing.
Since 2004, the divorce rate in the United States has declined by 36%. According to a recent analysis from Columbia University, mass shootings have increased a remarkable 183% over that same period of time, while mass shooting deaths increased 239%. Again, the U.S. proves to be an outlier in gun deaths, but not divorce rates. My analysis of data from 39 high-income nations indicates that there is no relationship between divorce rates and gun violence rates, either.
To be sure, good fathers and happy families have many positive effects. Highly engaged fathers tend to have children who are healthy, do well in school, meet developmental milestones and are well-adjusted. Well-functioning families have similar effects. Fathers and families both have positive effects on communities, as well. I am a strong advocate for happy families and involved fathers. They have many positive benefits, but they are a poor substitute for comprehensive gun control measures that keep guns away from individuals who shouldn’t have them.
Kevin Shafer, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Brigham Young University or its sponsoring church.