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.

The aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy, before traveling to the school on Dec. 14, 2012.

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

The aftermath of the school shootings at Newtown, Conn. has focused on searching for a motive. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza kill 20 children and six adults at the school, after shooting his mother in her bed? The report of the state’s attorney, released in November 2013, concluded the motive will never be known. Searching for a motive is misguided; what we want to know are causes. Whatever went through the head of Adam Lanza in the hours or years leading up to the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 is less important than the conditions that allowed this to happen. Above all, what was the chief cause, or causes? How could the shootings have been avoided?

Police investigators in the aftermath of the murders spent much time looking for an accomplice, anyone who had aided Adam Lanza in his plan. They missed the main accomplice, perhaps out of respect for the dead: the long-suffering, devoted mother, Nancy Lanza.

Clandestine Backstage Cult of Weapons

I have argued previously that the most distinctive clue that someone is planning a rampage killing is that they lead a secret life of amassing weapons and scripting the massacre. The point is not that they acquire a lot of guns; many people do that. But mass killers keep them secret. They become obsessed with plans and fantasies of the attack, and energized with the excitement of being able to dupe other people about their secret lives. Foremost among those who are duped is their family.

The Sandy Hook shooting had all these traits, with a few additional twists. The would-be shooter kept the bedroom windows of his room taped over with black trash bags, and so were the windows of the nearby computer room where he spent most of his time. No one was allowed into his room, not even to clean, not even his mother. In fact, no one was allowed into the house; all workers and deliveries had to meet the mother outside in the yard or at the end of the driveway.

What did he keep hidden in there? A semi-automatic rifle; two semi-automatic pistols; a semi-automatic shotgun; another rifle; a large amount of ammunition. Other weapons, such as knives, swords, and spears. He also had books and newspaper photocopies about shootings of school children and university students; a spreadsheet of mass murders; a large amount of information especially about the Columbine shootings; Hollywood movies about mass shootings; a video dramatization of children being shot; videos of suicide by gun; and a computer game called “School Shooting.” His fantasy life apparently centered not only on a large number of violent video games which he played at home—like millions of other boys—but on famous school shootings of the past, on killing children, on portraying himself armed to the teeth, and on a scenario that we can infer was to end in suicide.

The Mother as Facilitator: Folie à deux

Mental illness, although it is a noun, is not a thing: It is a behavior pattern that is seen when persons interact. Some of these patterns may have a physiological component. But interaction is a two-way, indeed multisided process; it isn’t just ruled by something in one person’s physiology.

This comes out most clearly in Adam Lanza’s way of interacting with his mother. She regarded him as mentally ill, and had said she did not work because she needed to care for her son, and worried about what would become of him without her. At home, he ruled her life. Because of his obsessive changing of his clothes, she had to do the laundry for him every day. No help was allowed into their home; she had to meet all deliveries outside. Although he could cook for himself, he demanded his mother make very specific combinations of food, which had to be served in just the right position on the plate, and certain dishes were prohibited for certain foods. One could call this obsessive compulsive; you could also see it as using mental illness as a form of control.

Mental illness in the home, then, is a conflict, a struggle over control, and the strongest weapon on the side of the wrecker of conventional amenities is that the others love him or her, or at least want to keep the peace.

Adam Lanza not only ordered his mother around in all sorts of trivial but insistent ways. He also got her to buy into his violent fantasy. All five guns that he possessed were bought by her, along with the large supply of ammunition. She also bought him all the weapons in his cult collection of swords and such. She was the perfect buyer: a respectable citizen, no criminal record, possessor of a pistol permit. She kept on buying him guns up to the very end. Even though tension had been building up, in December 2012, just before he shot her, she wrote a check for him to buy a pistol as a Christmas present.

How could she be so blind? Everything her son did, she interpreted as a manifestation of his illness. The windows taped shut with black plastic were to her just a sign of sensitiveness to light—even though he could go outdoors when he wanted to. The possibility that he was hiding something in the rooms she was forbidden to enter was masked in her own mind by the feeling that she must do everything possible for her son. He had drawn her into his mental illness, building up a family system where he was in complete control. She may have felt something was wrong, wronger even than having a mentally ill son she loved. Though it seems unlikely that they quarreled in an overt way, some signs of tension came through. According to the report, “a person who knew the shooter in 2011 and 2012 said the shooter described his relationship with his mother as strained” and said that “her behavior was not rational.” He told another that he would not care if his mother died. As usual, when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving.

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.

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.