Lessons From Newtown for Gun-Owning Parents

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 13 2013 5:30 AM

Lessons From Newtown for Gun-Owning Parents

Adam Lanza’s unwitting accomplice: His long-suffering mother.

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The mother entered into and supported his obsession with weapons, while carefully staying out of his clandestine world. In this, as in the rest of their arrangements, they tacitly cooperated. The mother lost her capacity to make independent judgments. This is very close to the classic model of the mental illness shared among intimates, the folie à deux.

One feature of the mother’s background accidentally facilitated her complicity with her son’s violent plot. She had grown up in rural New Hampshire, in a culture where hunting and shooting were popular pastimes. For her, an interest in guns was normal, and the fact that her son began collecting them was a good thing. It appears that his gun collecting developed after age 14, when he had already been diagnosed as mentally ill, and had started becoming obsessed with violent fantasies. His mother saw his guns as a healthy sign, since it was something the family could do together.

Altogether, it appears that as family relationships deteriorated and Adam withdrew more into video games and seclusion, guns were the one thing that mother and son positively had in common. It was the one interaction ritual that worked, where they focused on something they both liked. For her, it must have been the last remaining marker of mother-son solidarity.

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Can We Learn Anything That Will Head Off Mass Shootings?

The single outstanding cause of the murders that took place in Newtown, Conn. that day—the condition without which the murders would not have happened—was the behavior of Adam Lanza’s mother. He had neither the contacts nor the interactional competence to acquire the guns and ammunition on his own. Without her complicity, he would have been just another alienated young man, sunk in the world of computer games and violent fantasies. None of the other conditions—his mental illnesses, the problems of adolescent transition, the ubiquitous entertainment culture of fantasy violence—in itself is strongly correlated with mass killings; the latter two conditions in particular affect tens of millions of youths, but only a minuscule fraction of them turn it into a program of murder.

As Katherine Newman and colleagues have pointed out in their book Rampage, in virtually all rampage killings the plot leaks out somewhere; clues are evident, although missed at the time. Newman et al. are particularly concerned with clues missed by teachers, and hushed up by the teen peer culture. What we have here are clues that are strongly visible in the home. Anyone without this mother’s particular way of relating to her son could have seen that something was being concealed, and that it had something to do with stockpiling firepower.

Given that most school shootings are perpetrated by students or recent ex-students, the home is where most clandestine preparations are made. And this is no sudden episode; in every case we know, there was a long period of build-up. The deep tunnel of self-enhancing motivation is dug for months at least. And that means that parents and other members of the household are in the best position to read the cues for what is going on.

This lesson should be taken to heart above all by parents who own guns. Almost all school shootings happen in communities where gun ownership is widespread, where guns are part of the local culture. The vast majority of gun owners in such communities are respectable and noncriminal (for the statistics, see my Sept. 2012 post). Nevertheless, teens on the path of alienation, with the underground culture of prior mass killings to guide them, find it easiest to get guns when their parents and neighbors have them.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me repeat my previous conclusion. It is not the possession of guns that is the warning sign; it is the hiding of an arsenal, and a clandestine obsession with scenarios of violence. When clues like this appear in one’s own home, the gun-owning parent should be in the best position to recognize it.

It is not simply a matter of teaching one’s children proper gun safety. One can be well trained in an official gun-safety course—as Adam Lanza was, along with his mother—and still use the gun to deliberately shoot other people.

What is needed, above all, is a commitment by gun owners to keep their own guns completely secure, and not to let them fall into the hands of alienated young people, including one’s own children or their friends.

My recommendation is to gun owners themselves. The issue of gun control in the United States has been mainly treated as a matter of government legislation. That pathway has led to political gridlock. That does not mean that we can do nothing about heading off school shootings. Simply put: Keep alienated youths from building a clandestine arsenal where they nurture fantasies of revenge on the school status system, or whatever problems they have with their personal world. Gun-owning parents are closest to where this is most likely to happen. We need a movement of gun-owning parents who will encourage each other to make sure it doesn’t start in our home.

Randall Collins is the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.