“These tragedies must end”

Why are so many rampage killers the sons of divorce?
Michael Cook | 17 December 2012
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Sunday marked the fourth time that President Obama has visited a shell-shocked community after a rampage killer had mowed down innocent people. In 2009 the comforter-in-chief offered words of consolation after 13 servicemen died at Fort Hood; in 2011 after six died in Tucson; in July, after 12 died in a Denver movie theatre. And now in Newtown, Connecticut after 28 died in an elementary school. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza massacred his mother, six school staff, 20 students, all of them aged only 6 and 7, and finally himself.

Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle to kill most of his victims, shooting some of them many times. He also had two handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The guns he used had all been obtained legally by his mother. Why did she have so many lethal weapons in her home? It’s inexplicable to non-Americans.

This is one more tragic piece of evidence in the case for more restrictions on firearms. But it’s unlikely to happen. At a prayer vigil on Sunday President Obama spoke eloquently but vaguely about gun control. It sounded as though he was cannily preparing an escape hatch from his eloquent words of grief and sympathy in the face of a powerful gun lobby:

“We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.”

In any case, new gun control laws would never stop these incidents completely. Even severely restrictive laws would take years to decrease the supply of guns in private hands. And they would be challenged in the courts, which have taken a surprisingly permissive stand lately. Only last week a bill allowing Michigan residents to carry concealed weapons in schools passed through the state’s lower house.  If the Second Amendment were repealed, perhaps there would be a dramatic change. But there is no chance whatsoever of that happening. Americans like their guns too much.

But as the gun control lobby is fond of saying: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. If Americans can’t stop the supply of guns, how about stopping the supply of rage-filled shooters? President Obama seems to be open to ideas at this level. “In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said.

How about improving the mental health of young men by a nation-wide campaign to prove that divorce is a bigger health hazard than smoking or obesity? A bit of research shows that a significant proportion of rampage killers come from homes shattered by divorce. Adam Lanza’s parents split up in 2009 after 28 years of marriage. A neighbour told the Washington Post that “The kids seemed really depressed”.

The same melancholy story is the background to other rampage killers:

  • Only three days before the Connecticut murders, 22-year-old Jacob Roberts ran amok in a Portland, Oregon, shopping mall. He killed two people with an automatic rifle before committing suicide. He had never known his mother and was raised by a divorced aunt and her husband who shared custody of him.
  • Wade Page was a white supremacist who shot six Sikhs dead in Milwaukee before being killed by a police officer earlier this year. His parents were divorced.
  • Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people with a car bomb and semi-automatic rifle in Norway in 2011. He has been jailed for 25 years.  His parents divorced when he was one year old.
  • Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, took a bag of rifles and handguns to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and killed four girls and a teacher in 1998. They were jailed until they turned 21. Johnson’s parents were divorced.
  • Thomas Hamilton, 43, killed 16 children and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996 with four handguns before shooting himself. His parents were divorced when he was three years old.
  • George Hennard, 35, shot 23 people dead with a Glock 17 semi-automatic, and then shot himself on October 16, 1991, in Killeen, Texas. His parents had divorced in 1983.
  • Marc Lépine, 25, killed 14 women in Montreal in 1989. His parents separated when he was seven.
  • James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people, including five children, in in a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California in 1984. His parents were divorced.

Every year, over a million children are affected by divorce in the US. Sure, only an infinitesimal fraction of these go on deadly shooting sprees. But every year, more than 11 million firearms are sold, and only a couple of those are used by mass murderers. Divorce control makes even more sense than gun control.  

Like the right to carry guns, many Americans regard the right to divorce, regardless of the damage it may do to vulnerable children, as a cherished and immutable freedom. But can’t we take a leaf from President Obama’s speech:

“We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

The effects of divorce upon children have been extensively documented. There is little doubt among sociologists that children from divorced homes, especially boys, suffer irreparable harm. A summary of the research by the Washington DC-based Marriage and Religion Research Institute, released earlier this year, summarised the findings of many sociologists:

“Though [divorce] might be shown to benefit some individuals in some individual cases, over all it causes a temporary decrease in an individual’s quality of life and puts some ‘on a downward trajectory from which they might never fully recover’.”

And, like Adam Lanza, they may end up pulling others down with them. Just as much as gun control, Americans urgently need to re-examine their complacent acceptance of the fact that the lifetime probability of divorce or separation now falls between 40 and 50 percent. The calamity in this small New England town shows that children’s lives are at stake. As the President said, "This is our first task -- caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged."

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

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