June 08, 2022
Only a day after the Uvalde mass shooting, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah suggested that “fatherlessness” was to blame. Lee’s comments were echoed a few days later in a speech before the National Rifle Association’s convention, by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. These claims aren’t new. In 2013, the National Review published a piece titled Sons of Divorce, School Shooters, by conservative marriage promotion advocate W. Bradford Wilcox.
The Buffalo mass shooter lived with his two married parents. Both of the Columbine mass shooters lived with their married parents and had involved fathers. As Seamus McGraw notes in an essay on “America’s first modern mass shooting”—the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting—the shooter’s “father was perhaps the single most influential person in his upbringing … a looming … rigid and authoritarian” presence.
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. As Kevin Shaefer, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University, concludes in the best review of evidence on this issue, “fatherlessness is a poor explanation for understanding mass shootings.”
Shaefer found no relationship between mass shooting rates and both divorce and nonmarital birth rates in 39 rich countries. He also notes that anyone trying to link children’s living arrangements and mass shootings would need to explain “this phenomenon is most commonly perpetrated by a group [White men and White teens] that is at a relatively low risk for family instability.”
More generally, the evidence we have on the relationships between children’s living arrangements and commonly measured child outcomes—like educational attainment, mental health, and behavior—doesn’t provide much support for the idea that “fatherlessness” contributes to negative outcomes that could plausibly drive mass shootings.
As the OECD concluded in what remains the most extensive literature review on the topic, “the literature on the effects of sole parenthood on child well-being, while extensive and growing in sophistication, lacks a clear consensus on the existence of a causal effect. That any such effect is small is a conclusion which can be asserted with more confidence.”
A smaller-scale review by sociologist Sara McClanahan and her colleagues did not find strong or consistent evidence that “fatherlessness” drives outcomes that could be plausibly linked to mass shootings. For example, of the six rigorous studies they reviewed on the relationship between family type and adult mental health, three found some effect, two found no effect, and one found mixed effects. Similarly, seven studies found no effect on educational attainment and engagement, while three found mixed effects, and seven found some effect. (For a discussion of this and other related literature reviews, see the Appendix in the Family Story Project’s report on “marriage fundamentalism” in American politics.)
McClanahan and her colleagues also concluded that “the magnitude of these effects is smaller [in rigorous research that attempts to identify the causal effect of father absence] than what is found using traditional cross-sectional designs.” This echoes earlier findings in both the OECD review discussed above and research by family sociologist Paul Amato. Amato concluded that “increasing the share of children growing up with continuously married parents has … a relatively small effect on the share of children experiencing … problems,” including violence, delinquency, repeating grades, and school suspensions. This is because ”many children living with continuously married parents also experience these problems.”
So why are mass shootings so much more likely in the United States than other wealthy countries? Criminologist Adam Lankford has found that “public mass shooters in the United States are significantly more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons and attack at school and work-place settings. … These differences may be partially attributable to America’s national gun culture and its particular set of social strains” which have contributed to our lack of “even moderate gun control measures [that] might save lives.”
If the US wants to reduce mass shootings, it must focus on regulating firearms and changing its gun culture.