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School Shootings: Can the Synod on the Family Help?

Newtown Residents Mark 6-Month Anniversary Of Sandy Hook Shootings


NEWTOWN, CT - JUNE 14: Cecilia Floros, 10, of Newtown attends a remembrance event on the six month anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on June 14, 2013 in Newtown, Connecticut. A a 26-second moment of silence was observed to honor the 20 children and six adults who were killed at the school on Dec. 14. The event also included the reading of the names of over 6,000 people who have been killed by gun violence since the massacre in Newtown. The reading of names is expected to take 12 hours. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

John Burger - published on 10/12/15

Experts lament lack of attention to mental health, effects of divorce and pornography

When will it end?

Within a week of a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Rosedale, Oregon, which took the lives of nine people, there were two more shooting incidents on college campuses around the country.

The names attached to mass shootings have become all too familiar to Americans: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Emmanuel AME, Umpqua….

And it’s almost expected that after each shooting, political leaders take to the airwaves and speak of the need for greater gun control.

But are there other issues that should be addressed?

The latest shootings took place as the bishops of the Church prepared to meet in Rome for the second synod addressing the needs of the family in the modern world.  Many experts point to the family as one of the places where such challenges can be addressed.

The working document for the synod recognizes that work needs to be done.

“Marriages, whether religious or not, are decreasing in number, while separation and divorce is on the rise,” it says. “In general, an extreme individualism, increasingly becoming widespread, focuses uppermost on gratifying desires which do not lead to total personal fulfillment.”

“I always get frustrated because whenever these shootings occur people talk about gun control. That’s important, but what about the family, and what about our mental health system?” said Dr. Peter C. Kleponis, a psychologist with extensive experience working with adults and adolescents with excessive anger, controlling conflicts, sexual conflicts, depression and anxiety disorders. “How is it that these people are not being identified earlier? They went through elementary school, middle school and high school. Did anyone see anything then?”

Kleponis, a therapist at Comprehensive Counseling Services in Conshohocken, Pa., said America needs to invest more in its mental health system. “We need to work on strengthening families, strengthening marriages—that’s the real source of it all.”

While there are a variety of reasons people carry out mass shootings, in schools or elsewhere, mental illness is often a factor. But broken families are often in the background.

“A lot of them come from families where there’s a lot of neglect,” Kleponis said. “There’s abuse, addictions, divorce. They’re really hurting very badly, so they’re carrying a tremendous anger with them. Going back to Columbine, you look at the kids who shot up the school, and my question always was, ‘Where were the parents? How could you not know that your kids are stockpiling weapons and building weapons in your garage?’

“So, it starts with the family,” Kleponis said. “They come from very torn, very broken families. When I say broken I don’t necessarily mean divorced. There are a lot of kids coming from families where the parents are married but they totally neglect their kids. Pope John Paul II called them ‘orphans with parents.’”

Christopher Harper-Mercer, the shooter in Rosedale, Ore., was described in media reports as suffering from emotional disturbances, as well as family disruption. The New York Times reported that in a number of online postings that were apparently written by the 26-year-old, he showed he had become increasingly interested in other high-profile shootings, angry at not having a girlfriend and bitter at a world that he believed was working against him.

He also appeared to have a particular animus against organized religion, and some survivors’ families have said he asked the victims whether they were Christians before shooting them the morning of Oct. 1. He described himself on an online dating site as “Not Religious, but Spiritual.” He belonged to a group called “Doesn’t Like Organized Religion.”

Besides using the internet for dating, he indulged in online pornography, according to the report. He participated in a file-sharing forum where illicit content is often shared, the Times said:

The user, who posted under the name lithium_love, shared pornography, as well as movies like “Illuminati Secrets” and “UFO Secrets of the Third Reich.”

His parents divorced when he was about 16, and he lived with his mother, Laurel Harper. He was listed as a 2009 graduate of  a private school for students with learning disabilities, emotional issues and other special-education needs.

Laurel Harper also went on online forums, but to offer advice on health issues. Identifying herself as a nurse, she said that she had a son with Asperger’s.

Anne Hendershott, director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, said last week she was interested in the similarities between the Sandy Hook shooter and the Oregon shooter. “It is like they are the ‘same’ individuals: both lived with their mothers, both were children of divorce, both alienated—isolated and probably medicated. Both had mental problems. Both had access to guns (provided by their own parents).”

In 2012, following the Sandy Hook shooting, where Connecticut 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 2o children in an elementary school and seven adults, including his mother, Hendershott, who has published sociological articles on the problems of alienation, wrote about the need to restore sanity in the treatment of mentally ill persons in the United States.

“While progressives claim the moral high ground in their calls for gun control, they tend to ignore the fact that progressive policies on mental illness may have contributed to this dark day in Newtown,” Hendershott wrote. “For more than 40 years, we have been defining down the risks posed by the violent mentally ill. Dismissing the potential for violence within the population of the mentally ill was a noble goal in the beginning—an enlightened society needed to move away from the values and norms surrounding mental illness in the 18th century, when aristocratic elites visited the ‘mad’ in London’s Bedlam Hospital and called it ‘entertainment.’ But the social cost of defining down the risks posed by the violent mentally ill has been high—as the parents of the children of Newtown know.”

Hendershott explained that the Supreme Court of the United States declared in its 1975 O’Connor v. Donaldson decision that mentally ill individuals who pose no obvious danger to anyone cannot be confined against their will. “And, for the past four decades, rather than focusing on the well-being of the mentally ill—and their neighbors, family, and friends—efforts have focused instead on reducing the stigma associated with their condition. The costs have been high,” she wrote, citing a litany of incidents in recent years in which mentally disturbed persons have pushed people onto subway tracks, stabbed  babies in the face with ballpoint pens, used paving stones to smash the skulls of random women on the street, or mowed down classmates with their cars.

Clearly, gun control would not have helped prevent such situations.

“There are a lot of kids out there who don’t have Asperger’s or Autism or bipoloar disorder, but they still are very deeply disturbed because you look at the home life that they’re in, you look at their peer relationships in school, they’re ostracized, they may have a history of behavioral problems, they may hae a history of substance abuse, and nobody does anything about it,” Kleponis commented.

He said that there was a lot of defunding of the mental health system in the 1970s and 1980s and a general belief that many people were “not sick enough to belong in an institution.”

“But they’re not well enough to be out on their own, either, and it’s not surprising that all of a sudden we see an increase in the homeless population,” Kleponis said.

In spite of several high-profile shootings, he doesn’t see the trend being reversed.

W. Bradford Wilcox and others have also pointed to a commonality many of the school shooters have: the lack of a father in their lives.

Wilcox, who was raised by a single mother, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “My own research suggests that boys living in single mother homes are almost twice as likely to end up delinquent compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their father,” he wrote at National Review Online. “If the nation is serious about ending the scourge of school shootings, it must also get serious about strengthening the families that are our first line of defense in preventing our boys from falling into a downward spiral of rage, hopelessness, or nihilism.”

“The mental health issue… cannot be addressed honestly without facing up to one of the biggest contributors to unhappiness, depression and crime amongst young men anywhere: growing up, thanks to divorce or non-marriage, without a father,” wrote Carolyn Moynihan, deputy editor of MercatorNet. “Divorce lies in the background of Umpqua, Sandy Hook and many similar tragic episodes.”

John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

MarriageMental HealthPornography
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