Is Fatherlessness Associated With Gun Violence?
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■ Media reports often connect violent crime to family structure, especially fatherlessness.
■ There are no studies that clearly support the argument that fatherlessness is to blame for gun violence.
■ Family professionals should look for nuanced and data-based policy solutions.
Blaming Father Absence
Linking violent crime, including gun violence, to fatherlessness has become commonplace, both in the public discourse and among social scientists. For example, after the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, several media outlets filed unsupported reports claiming that 26 of the 27 deadliest mass shooters in American history came from fatherless homes (see Meckler, 2018). More than 20 years ago, building on disorder theories, criminologists suggested that family structure may be the strongest predictor of urban violence in the United States (Sampson, 1995).
Although these arguments are pervasive, no studies addressing the direct effect of fatherlessness on the use of gun violence were found. Neither government nor independent data on gun violence and mass shooters include information on family structure (Huff-Corzine et al., 2014). As a result, social scientists have used indirect ways to assess the argument. A common strategy when focusing on a potential relationship between crime and fatherlessness is to look at macro-level data on family structure (e.g., Zimmerman & Messner, 2010). Using these approaches, researchers have found that both violent and gun-related crimes increase as the number of single mothers, children born out of wedlock, and/or divorces increases. Much of this thinking is based on trends in the 1970s and 1980s, when violent crime was increasing alongside substantial changes in U.S. families.
Contemporary data, however, suggest a precarious relationship between fatherlessness, either through out-of-wedlock childbearing or divorce, and violent crime. Violent crime and homicide rates have been declining since the early 1990s, whereas the number of homicides by firearm has remained steady (Pew Research Center, 2018). Yet these changes were not met with a return to traditional family life. Although divorce rates have dropped in the past two decades, the number of children born out of wedlock has increased, and fewer people have gotten married (Brown, 2017).
A more granular analysis may support the fatherlessness argument. For example, more than 70% of Black births are to unmarried women, and Black children are disproportionately likely to be raised in single-parent homes (Martin, Hamilton, Osterman, Driscoll, & Drake, 2018). At the same time, though, Blacks are arrested for homicide and other violent crimes at disproportionately high rates (Gase et al., 2016). Unlike the analyses discussed earlier, these analyses suggest a positive correlation between fatherlessness and violent crime. This association often leads to either implicit or explicit suggestions that greater commitment to marriage and family by Black Americans would reduce both violent crime and gun violence. Yet such conclusions lack contextualization and ignore systemic issues that affect nearly every aspect of life among Black Americans. For example, Blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts, and an in-depth analysis of the issue suggests that massive inequalities in policing and sentencing are to blame for such a difference (Nelis, 2016). Disparities in drug crimes are particularly stark. For example, while Blacks make up 12.5% of drug users in the United States, they represent more than 33% of all individuals incarcerated for a drug offense (Mitchell & Caudy, 2015). In short, there are many problems facing Black communities in the United States, including poverty, joblessness, and other structural issues. Thus, it is likely that family instability, violent crime, and many other social problems are all symptoms of larger systemic issues.
Fatherlessness and Mass Shootings
Indeed, any association between race/ ethnicity and violent crime does not hold in the case of mass shootings. An analysis of all mass shootings (in which four or more individuals were killed) between 1976 and 2011 found that White males were disproportionately likely to be mass shooters (Fox & DeLateur, 2013). Yet out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates are lower for Whites than every other racial/ethnic group, save Asians (Martin et al., 2018). This suggests that fatherlessness is a poor explanation for understanding mass shootings. In fact, any link between fatherlessness and mass shootings would need to address why this phenomenon is most commonly perpetuated by a group that is at a relatively low risk for family instability. Yet arguments addressing this conundrum seem few and far between.
Definition of Fatherlessness
Another important issue is what is actually meant by fatherlessness. Despite the lack of micro-level data on fatherlessness and gun violence, a robust research literature on father involvement finds significant variability in fathering behaviors across several personal characteristics, including marital status (Marsiglio & Roy, 2012). Such variation makes the use of such a proxy methodologically suspect. A return to the previous example of race and family structure is illustrative. While the majority of Black children are born out of wedlock, most Black children still live with their biological fathers. According to Jones and Mosher (2013), both residential and nonresidential Black fathers are more engaged in caregiving, spend more time with their children, and are more emotionally available than their White counterparts (Jones & Mosher, 2013). Similarly, while the research literature suggests that divorced fathers are, on average, less present and engaged in the lives of their children than are married fathers, sizable variability in paternal involvement exists, and many divorced fathers remain highly engaged as parents (Jensen & Shafer, 2013). Further, divorce does not have a universally negative impact on children. In some cases, such as the presence of intimate partner or family violence, cutting off contact between father and child is appropriate and potentially beneficial for children (Ribar, 2015). In other situations, mother–father relationships are so bad that divorce brings about increased emotional stability and support, ultimately improving child well-being (Amato, 2010).
Relatedly, many children live in stepfamilies following divorce or separation that are formed either through cohabitation or remarriage (Sweeney, 2010). Although, on average, children in stepfamilies fare worse than children from intact families, research illustrates substantial variability in stepfamily experiences. My work with colleagues Todd Jensen and Erin Holmes shows, for example, that the negative effects of stepfamily life on stress, depression, attachment, and overall well-being are mitigated when children have emotionally available, engaged stepfathers (Jensen, Shafer, & Holmes, 2017; Shafer, Jensen, & Holmes, 2017). Various other family forms and social fathers can be beneficial to children as well (Bzostek, 2008; Carlson & Berger, 2013). Together, these results suggest that more nuanced thinking is required on fatherlessness, particularly when we consider its potential effects on something as emotionally, personally, and politically charged as the issue of gun violence in the United States.
Implications for Family Professionals
As U.S. residents ranging from everyday citizens to the politically powerful discuss issues such as gun violence and mass shootings in the United States, it is important that we as family professionals assist with the debate by helping others to become informed by data. Many possible causes of these gun tragedies have been forwarded— such as mental health issues, popular media, and changes in family life. Social scientists, including family professionals, should carefully consider all arguments and assess them on their empirical merits, moving beyond unnuanced reports about shooters or simple correlations. Family professionals should speak out on gun violence and work to find data-based policy solutions to this problem, because we are aware of the outcomes of gun violence for individuals and families. At the same time, when the discourse and possible policy solutions address the family, it is incumbent upon family professionals to use our expertise to help formulate answers that will work. In the case of gun violence and so-called fatherlessness, the available evidence suggests either a very weak or a null relationship between the two. Policies addressing this issue would likely be fruitless. We should, instead, direct stakeholders to more productive solutions that do not scapegoat families but that do prevent more families from going through the tragedy and trauma of gun violence.
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