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The Bottom Line It’s Not Just About Guns

The recent mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, has again brought the nation’s attention to the issue of gun control and what, if anything, we can do to prevent further bloodshed.

As has been the case in all these mass shootings, there is an immediate public demand for further gun control. The Congress is currently addressing this issue. But there is a lot more to think about, in these mass shootings, than just gun control. It would behoove us all to dig deeper to find the root causes of these events and then attempt to develop some practical solutions that might allow us the opportunity to prevent future similar events or at least reduce the likelihood of such events. We need to understand what could possibly cause a young person to believe that killing elementary children is an appropriate response to anything.

What We Know:

  • Every state in the nation has laws against murder. Yet we still have murders—in fact, murders have steadily increased since hitting a low point in 2014.
  • Every state in the nation has laws against having a firearm on school property, except for law enforcement and security personnel, yet 7.6 percent of mass shootings occur on school property.
  • Most of the perpetrators have been white males between 14-20 years of age, and often  attended the school where they carried out their carnage.
  • Some of the perpetrators were “loners” or were subject to bullying, or both. 
  • Some, but not all, of these mass killers came from unstable home environments where there may not have been a father and, often times, a mother who was not home or not capable of providing a loving, nurturing home environment. The Robb Elementary School gunman was living with his grandmother. Unable to control him, she became his first victim. According to research by the National Institute for Justice, “over 80% of individuals who engaged in shootings stole guns from family members.” Many had trauma/adverse childhoods, most were suicidal as some point, and virtually all had “signs of crisis.”
  • The vast majority of these events are planned in detail. The perpetrator knew exactly when and where they would carry out their plan.
  • The killers usually announce their intentions in advance, often through social media.
  • In almost all cases, 92% for those under 18 and 100% for those of college age, the killers were suicidal at the time of carrying out their plan — having decided to end their own life, but not until they had taken out a lot of other people.

Other Things We Know:

  • There are an estimated 20 million AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles in the hands of American citizens.
  • The background check on the Robb Elementary perpetrator did not prevent him from buying the weapons, as he had no prior documented mental health history or criminal record.
  • There are a lot of young people who are “loners” or have mental health or social adjustment issues. Determining which one might decide to take their own life, or the lives of others, is extremely difficult.

Mass shootings were very rare prior to 1960 but, over the years, they have become more frequent. One has to wonder why? What has changed, in our society, that would cause us to see this trend.

Here are a few societal issues that are not at the center of the current debate but should be, because they have massive ramifications regarding how we live and the type of children we raise.

Societal Changes:

  • Family Structure:  When WWII started, only 3.8% of children were born out of wedlock.   Today, 40.5% are. In some communities, over 70% are born out of wedlock. The traditional family structure has been decimated. We are becoming a “fatherless society” and it is having a major negative impact on our children. In addition, to a lack of parental support, 38% of children, raised by a single female parent, live in poverty.   
  • Schools:  Graduation rates are up, but test scores are flat or down — with many children not even able to master basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. We have had grade inflation at all levels of our education system. Of those who do graduate, many cannot pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) required for military service. At a time when, more than ever, our young people need a better education, they are not getting it. Today, 70% of children are not getting the education they need and deserve. Our education system has become obsolete and has not adjusted to the needs of the 21st Century. Traditional school has become boring and irrelevant to many of our young people.
  • Religion:  Over the last 50-70 years, we have become an increasingly secular society. In doing so, we no longer do as good a job of teaching our young people right from wrong, how to love your neighbor as yourself, individual accountability, values, morals, etc. 
  • The War on Poverty:  Since 1964, our nation has spent over $21 trillion on the War on Poverty. Today, we have more poverty than at any time in our history. The War on Poverty has been an unmitigated failure. In fact, it has been detrimental to our society.   It has helped to create an entire “underclass” of citizens, who have been raised and now live, totally dependent upon the government largess. Personal accountability, responsibility, and self-worth have been systematically removed from these individuals.  Poverty is not the lack of money; poverty is the lack of the ability or opportunity to earn money. We have been fighting the wrong war for almost 60 years, and we are paying dearly for it, both economically and in the negative impact it has had on our society.
  • Childhood Poverty:  The number of children, being raised in a poverty environment, continues to climb. Today, 44% of the children, attending public schools, come from homes that qualify for free and reduced lunch services. Research has shown that children, raised in poverty, are the least prepared for school and are the most difficult to educate. We also know that children raised in poverty often live in very stressful environments, with drugs, alcohol, abuse, etc., prevalent in their daily lives. These “toxic environments” impact brain development, which can lead to negative behavioral traits. 
  • Public Service:  When I was 18, I tried everything to avoid the draft. Enrolling in ROTC while in college, I ended up serving as an officer. Though trying to avoid serving, I now look back on my military experience with fondness, as do almost all of my peers who also served, either as officers or enlisted. Many say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. They “grew up” while in the military. I don’t know if we should re-institute the draft, but we should make at least a year of public service mandatory for all young people, particularly males. Being away from home, having to learn new things, having to respond to orders, etc., are positive learning experiences — in short it helps young people grow up. We are now in the third generation of adults who have never had to serve their country, in any capacity. Many of our young people have never had any discipline in their life, and many have never had any support. Such young people end up being neither responsible citizens nor effective parents.
  • The Internet:  The advent of the Internet, with its instantaneous access to information, has transformed how we live and work. It has also transformed how many children spend their time. Children, especially “loners,” spend inordinate amounts of time on the internet watching material detrimental to their healthy development.

We are a very different country than we were in the 1960s. Though many of us are much better off today, as a society, we are not as healthy. Perhaps it’s time, instead of enacting more gun laws, to start thinking about how we cannot only enhance the education of our young people but, help them to develop moral character, ethics, mental well-being, healthy relationships, etc.

Is it possible that the rash of mass shootings is really the result of a deteriorating society for the raising of children? If so, perhaps the real solution is to do a better job of loving, nurturing, and educating our young. It seems that our future may well depend on it.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chair of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.
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