Last month's massacre of twenty young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, prompted much public debate and soul-searching. The results were predictable. The left-liberal position went something like this:
There are too many guns in America, too many crazy people who should not have guns, and too few restrictions on the kinds of firearms that civilians may own. It's ridiculous to allow civilians to possess military-style assault rifles with large capacity magazines that can kill dozens of innocent human beings in minutes. We need to end our national love affair with firearms and firearm violence and should learn from the Europeans and Japanese, who severely restrict gun ownership for anyone not in the military or government police forces. We also need laws mandating that privately-owned firearms be stored securely so that criminals or unlicensed users can’t get them.
Our mental health system also needs a thorough overhaul. Troubled, at-risk youth are too often left to fend for themselves because their families cannot pay for or access the professional care they need. We need to provide them this care through more outreach programs in schools and community centers that identify children and teens at high risk for self-destructive or socially destructive behavior.
While many found this view compelling, the conservative take on the Newtown horror couldn't have differed more. It went like this:
Guns will always fall into hands that they shouldn’t, no matter how extensive our gun control laws are. These laws don’t prevent criminals from getting guns, but they disarm law-abiding citizens and render them helpless against deadly criminal attacks. Look at what happened in Norway. A country with very strict gun laws still saw one of the worst gun massacres of all time when the deranged Nordic supremacist Anders Breivik systematically shot and killed over five dozen helpless adolescents on an offshore island where only he possessed a firearm. Only a heavily armed Norwegian SWAT team stopped his attack. The bad guys prey on helpless victims who they know will never shoot back. Only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. To protect our school children we need more armed guards—policemen and suitably trained civilians—who know how to use firearms responsibly and how to defend the helpless and defenseless against homicidal crazies.
We also need to stop the poisonous influence of violent video games and Hollywood movies on developing young minds. Teenage youth can become desensitized to violence through an addiction to games like Grand Theft Auto, Thrill Kill, Postal, and Mortal Kombat. These games reduce people’s sense of empathy and increase their appetite for sadism and aggression. If we really want to tackle the problem of youth violence in America, we should critically examine the perverse messages that our media-saturated culture often sends to young people.
Other claims and arguments were made to bolster both positions. The Supreme Court, for instance, came under attack from both sides—from the right for prohibiting prayer in public schools, from the left for interpreting the Second Amendment to include a right of private gun ownership. The two contrasting views were fleshed out in countless op-ed pieces and news broadcasts with the usual low quality we expect of such media treatment.
The Elephant in the Living Room
Though both sides in this dispute have something sensible to say, they’ve missed an elephant in the room either because of willful blindness to anything politically incorrect or because of a lack of real-world experience. I speak of the problems associated with divorce, family breakup, father absence, and the enormous burdens placed on a single mom who must rear a troubled male child alone.
Adam Lanza was not normal. He suffered from morbid shyness and an inability to connect with his student peers and anyone else—a cold, withdrawn, hollow shell of a person to his classmates, an Asperger's patient to professional psychologists. Even under the best of circumstances—with a loving, caring, two-parent family consisting of a husband and wife who complemented each other’s strengths and worked together as a team—raising someone like Adam Lanza would be a real challenge.
One can't say how he might have turned out under different circumstances, but statistics show that having divorced parents, as Lanza did, plus a father who moves out of the household, remarries, and has little contact with his son for long stretches of time, is not the ideal formula for successful childrearing. Yet what sociologists call “family structure issues” were rarely discussed in the media, not even on conservative talk radio where one might have expected them to have a preeminent place. Most Americans, it seems, have so many divorced or single-parent neighbors, friends, and relatives (if they are not themselves divorced or living as single parents) that discussing family structure is simply too painful and too sensitive to be taken up in any honest or candid manner.
While we may never be able to explain fully what caused Lanza's murderous rampage, the best speculation to date involves, besides mental health problems and gun availability, the challenges faced by a single mom trying to raise a deeply troubled youth. A Fox News reporter gathered from the Lanzas’ neighbors and others who knew the family situation that Lanza likely killed his mother because he thought that she loved the students and teachers of Sandy Hook School more than she loved him. Lanza knew that his mother planned to have him committed to conservatorship, and perceived her court petition as an effort to send him away. This enraged him to the extent that he killed first-graders who may have worked with his mother in the past year, and the school’s principal and psychologist, who were his mother’s good friends.
It's hard to read such an account without feeling great sadness for someone like Nancy Lanza—a single mother with a deeply disturbed male adolescent on her hands and no man in the house to turn to for help or advice. Those who knew her said that she was at her wit’s end and thought she could no longer care for her son by herself. In a saner age, when people understood the palpable harms of “broken homes” and “fatherless boys” (the terms themselves have become quaint if not archaic), the “family structure issue” would have guided reflection on the Lanza killings. But now, since any such discussion of divorce’s harms, especially the harm of not having a father present in the home, would step on too many toes, we focus instead on the safer territory of gun control and our mental health system.
A preview of the current non-discussion was provided almost fifty years ago when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. As Moynihan learned, however important the “family structure issue” may be to an understanding of an acute social problem, for many it strikes a raw nerve, the pain of which shuts down all serious discussion. A preoccupation with "racism" and "de-industrialization" were the equivalents in Moynihan's day of guns and the mental health system today, as topics to raise to avoid the salient but hypersensitive issue of family breakdown.
In his book Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn writes that “across societies, married fatherhood is the single most reliable, and relied upon, prescription for socializing males. As marriage weakens, more and more men become isolated and estranged from their children and from the mother of their children. One result, in turn, is the spread of male violence.” Though we can’t ignore the other contributing factors to the Lanza massacre, this simple truth must be acknowledged in any honest assessment of the Newtown tragedy.
Russell Nieli is a lecturer in politics at Princeton University.