As Americans continue to question what leads someone to pick up a gun and shoot strangers — especially children who are simply attending school — some, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, are debating what role family relationships and social breakdown play.

After the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were murdered, Lee speculated that “fatherlessness” and family breakdown may drive young men to kill. The remark, made in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, has been widely reported by national news outlets, triggering a response from experts who research family structure and its impacts.

Lee asked, “Why is our culture suddenly producing so many young men who want to murder innocent people? ... 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?”

There’s an edge to many of the news reports on Lee’s comments, with some saying conservatives will consider everything but gun laws to explain gun violence. Others say liberals won’t consider anything but gun laws to end mass shootings.

Utah’s senior senator has been lambasted and praised for raising the issue of family breakdown.

In a Washington Examiner opinion piece, Timothy P. Carney defended Lee, saying Lee didn’t lay sole blame for mass shootings on fatherlessness. “Nobody has to say that in order to say that fatherlessness, like other instances of social breakdown, contributes to antisocial and violent behavior, with these mass shootings being the most horrific examples.”

Others say evidence doesn’t back up such a claim. Kevin Shafer, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, is among those noting that while other countries are very like the United States in terms of marriage and divorce rates, the amount of nonmarital births and dwindling church attendance, among other facts of family life, America stands alone for the sheer volume of mass shootings. 

“In a complex behavior like mass shooting, it is unlikely that there would be one cause,” said Phil Cowan, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

No expert told the Deseret News that family problems and troubled relationships don’t impact children or their future behaviors. But many doubt mass shootings can be laid at their door.

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Crumbling society?

Lee bristles at some of the response his remarks in committee unleashed. He said reporting that homed in on fatherlessness and interpreted it as attacking single mothers willfully misrepresents what he said.

“I don’t ever associate fatherlessness with blame on a single mother,” he said. “That’s not how it works.”

He said he was calling out the absence of men as role models and mentors, as well as what he sees as a general breakdown in society. “We’ve seen some of our most fundamental institutions in civil society in the United States collapsing or at least eroding. When I speak of trends, of course they don’t refer to most Americans. I don’t mean to speak categorically, I just mean relative to prior eras of American history. People don’t know their neighbors as much as they once did. They’re not attending church as much as they once did. And more are experiencing loneliness and isolation, an estrangement from their fathers than they have in the past. The data show that is true,” he told the Deseret News.

Lee said the Social Capital Project he leads for the Joint Economic Committee Republicans finds clear evidence that social capital “is deeply important to our happiness and to our prosperity. And it’s in deep decline.” 

Still, he added, “None of this is to suggest that a person who has a relationship with his father is incapable of these crimes. But you do see disproportionately reflected in those involved in these kinds of events a detachment from a functioning family — or maybe there’s a father there but there’s a lack of connection. From families to faith groups to communities, the detachment from all these institutions tends to be a major contributor to violent crime.”

Add in other factors like violent video games, “violent and destructive pornography” and radical forms of online groups that glorify hate and violence and he sees a “toxic, toxic recipe for disaster.”

Others agree.

“Sen. Mike Lee is right to wonder if fatherlessness and family breakdown are factors in the tidal wave of violence that has engulfed America since 2020,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. “We know that young men who are raised without the benefit of good fathers are more likely to engage in violent behavior. Of course, other factors are also likely in play — from the effects of lockdowns and excessive screen time on the social and emotional well-being of young men to the ready availability of guns in our culture.”

Carney cited research to defend Lee’s point, including a 1997 study in Research in Crime and Delinquency that said the proportion of families that are fatherless is “the most reliable indicator of violent crime in a community.”

He also cited a 2019 metastudy from researchers in Amsterdam that said “growing up in single-parent families is associated with an elevated risk of involvement in crime by adolescents.” Those researchers called for more study to sort out why fathers were not in the home — parents divorced, never married or whether dad died — and how that might impact children.

However, other scholars and commentators see the discussion about family structure and civil society as more political than helpful.

“Conservatives who talk about family structure, fatherlessness or mental health after mass shootings are simply not serious,” said Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “No serious policy analyst considers these actionable causes of America’s unique problem of mass shootings. Those are problems that exist everywhere, and nowhere else has our gun violence. Proof that they are not serious is that they have no policies to propose.”

Cohen said no policy proposed by “family conservatives” has reversed the decline of marriage or the rise of single parenthood.

“This is not and never has been a practical policy approach. It’s just ideological pandering. To raise this after a horrific tragedy like Uvalde or Buffalo is just taking up space in the news until the country’s attention moves on,” he said.

Evidence of family breakdown

Several experts told the Deseret News there’s a disconnect between what studies show and what often gets blamed for mass shootings.

The United States is roughly in the middle of rich countries for nonmarital births, Shafer said, but its gun violence rate is much higher than in any other rich country. When he posted that on Twitter, someone told him he was asking the wrong question and that he should be looking at the share who are single parents. So he did that, too.

“There’s also no relationship between the percent of single parents and gun violence rates within a country. That doesn’t appear to be a risk factor. If you look at marriage rates, that’s not protective. If you look at divorce rates, that doesn’t increase the rate of gun violence within a country,” Shafer said.

He believes that “unless fatherlessness has a unique effect in the United States that it doesn’t have elsewhere,” it doesn’t drive gun violence. “CDC data has repeatedly shown that nonresidential fathers are pretty involved dads, on average. We need to be much more nuanced in our arguments about these kinds of things and we need to be clear about what we’re actually talking about,” Shafer said.

Others point out that some children living in homes with their father have a strained relationship with him — or none at all. If a father is a my-way-or-else authoritarian, studies say the resulting parent-child connections don’t benefit children.

“You can’t just use these proxies for fatherlessness and say, ‘Well, there’s a relationship between those two things,’ because we’re not getting into the nitty-gritty of what dads are actually doing with their kids, whether these kids have father figures in their lives. It’s much more complex than it is often made to look,” said Shafer.

“Single mom” doesn’t necessarily mean raising kids without another parent. And “absent dad” may not mean he isn’t engaged in his children’s lives, several experts said.

A link or a cause?

When Stephanie Coontz taught students at The Evergreen State College about cause and correlation, she especially liked to use an example from her dad, an economist. He pointed out that when minister salaries went up, so did sales of scotch. One might assume that ministers were drinking, she said, but of course, both salaries and sales just went up in good economic times.

Coontz, director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families, believes many nuances hide beneath broad labels. While divorce is often hard on kids, it can be an improvement if parents constantly fought and were stressed. Some households do OK after divorce; others really struggle.

“Often the ones who struggle may struggle worse after a breakup,” she said, “but their struggles before are why the marriage broke up.”

Coontz said people who live in economic scarcity often move in quickly with each other, end up having a baby and then realize they’re in an abusive or otherwise bad situation. There are good reasons to leave a family structure that doesn’t work.

While a somewhat higher percentage of kids from one-parent homes turn to violence, the overwhelming majority of kids from one-parent homes do not, she said. “And when we look at those who do, we find that often the social experiences and family-community patterns that help explain their violence were also what caused the family instability, so that the family form was a symptom, not a cause of the factors that led the child to violence.”

Unstable relationships, chronic economic stress, being exposed to violence in a community, being surrounded by deteriorating infrastructure and disadvantaged neighborhoods — all those can have more impact than family structure does, several experts said.

As a sociologist, Shannon Cavanagh said she applauds Lee’s call to consider what causes so many “young, white cisgendered men to engage in these horrific acts of terror.”

But Cavanagh, professor of sociology and postdoctoral training director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center, said she doesn’t find “fatherlessness” a particularly compelling explanation for Uvalde and other mass shootings. The Columbine killers were both raised with two parents. One father was in the military and the other was very active in the church, for example, she said.

“That alone doesn’t mean the family environment doesn’t matter, but it certainly weakens his claim,” she said. 

Some experts say it’s too easy to try to offer simple explanations like family structure or mental health to explain a horrific attack. Often, the motives behind attacks never do become clear.

After Lee brought up family breakdown, Shawn Fremstad, a scholar at the Center for Economic Policy Research, said he did some digging.

“Mass shootings are extreme events, so we don’t have a lot of demographic or survey data to look at, but there is no evidence-based reason for believing that mass shootings are caused by single mothers, grandmothers who raised their grandchildren or lesbian couples, all examples of “fatherless” household arrangements,” he said.

Evidence on more common events than mass shootings isn’t conclusive, either, he noted. Although lots of studies have considered the effects of single parenthood on child well-being, agreement on causal effect is lacking. It’s easier to say with confidence that “any such effect is small,” Fremstad said.

Despite divergent opinions on a lot of things, experts seem to agree on one thing: Strong families do matter. Children benefit when parents are engaged, supportive and are committed to their children’s well-being and helping them flourish. 

Where they disagree is whether those strong families will solve all gun violence or if something else is at play, too.

“I don’t know how many of the shooters grew up without fathers, or grew up in disorganized families, but I do know that almost all of the fatherless children or children of split families do not grow up to be criminals, shooters or mentally ill. While it is true that family breakdown increases the risk of bad outcomes, it doesn’t function as a main cause of bad outcomes,” Cowan said.

Glorifying violence

Cavanagh is among those who believe you can’t solve gun violence without considering the gun part of what happened. 

“What is clear in all of these killings is the easy access to guns, guns that allow these young men who are very likely detached from civil society, to do unthinkable harm to children, families, and communities, including fathers,” she said.

Others — including Lee — are concerned about the role of violent movies, violent video games and violent pornography, among other challenges.

Shafer prefaces his comments about the cause by pointing out that “it’s really hard to look at the relationship between any variable and gun violence in the United States because Congress has made it almost impossible to study. We lack the data.”

He’s referring to the Dickey Amendment, which for close to two decades was included in the budget, forbidding the use of federal funds to study gun violence. 

The amendment was not included in the 2020 fiscal year budget, but it’s expected to take time for studies on gun violence to learn much. That budget allocated $25 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to research reducing gun-related deaths and injuries. Stories at the time said it was the first such funding since 1996.

Lee said part of Congress’ job is figuring out what would make a difference and what wouldn’t, all within the framework of the Constitution. 

He points out that the video games, movies and writing that glorify violence carry constitutional free speech protections. “And while they’re destructive, we understand that’s part of living in a free society,” he said.

Lee rejects the idea of repealing the Second Amendment. He said he tries to look at each gun proposal to see how it would deter violent crime. But any proposal has to be balanced against the impact on law-abiding citizens, too, he said.

As for getting rid of AR-15s, he said that’s a popular gun often owned by law-abiding citizens — which the Constitution protects. And he views proposals to ban categories of weapons through that Second Amendment lens.

Conquering the societal problem of social isolation would better reduce mass shootings, he said. But “those aren’t things that are easily amenable to government intervention.”

Because social media companies have sophisticated artificial intelligence that could flag those who express a desire to be mass murderers or who outline their plans, Lee said he thinks the companies might be convinced — or even compelled — to alert authorities.

Society has already agreed felons, people convicted of domestic violence and some other groups should not be able to own guns. Lee said he’s willing to consider arguments that others should be prohibited, too. 

“I do think it can be helpful for us to examine the laws that we’ve already got and figure out where things broke down with regard to enforcement,” he said.

Looking forward

Cowan is among those calling for policymakers to get serious about reducing access to high-powered guns and increasing access to social support.

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“Why are politicians ignoring the obvious conclusion that reducing access to certain kinds of guns — not all guns — could reduce mass shootings? he asked. “And while they’re at it, they could increase funds for family support because that would do other good things for the country.”

Cavanagh agrees that lawmakers who want to support children and strengthen families should support “legislation like paid family leave (to) make it easier for partners to stay together and take care of their kids, student loan debt relief (to) make college seem like an option for young people and an assault-weapons ban — obviously — among other things.”

Shafer hopes the government will earmark money to study what perpetuates shootings. 

“My hope is that they’ll put money behind their hypothesis and that we can really firmly understand this and we don’t have to look at correlations across countries to better try to understand this phenomenon. That we truly empirically studied the question,” he said.

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