Family Values

I apologize for reposting this.  But this has been completely redone in light of new research.  This is a must-read for anyone that is interested in the multiple causes of making a mass shooter.  Conservatives cannot solve the problem by attacking family values because it plays but a minor role.  “Family values” is mostly a ruse that resonates with their home base.  They will not solve the problem by improving mental health care either.  They choose mental health care because gun control is not an option for them.

NRA meeting: Deflecting blame from guns, attendees said a breakdown in society — including removing God from schools (family values) and a rise in mental illness — causes mass shootings, echoing the rhetoric of Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

There is a fair amount of misinformation out there on mass shootings.  If we want to solve the problem, we must first define it.  A very small percentage of all mass shooters are “mentally ill”.  It is also mostly not about “family values”.  “Family values” is amorphous, mythological in its use and meant to stir up outrage.  “Breakdown in society!”  In fact, some conservative values are poor at preventing mass shootings.  This is about broken individuals, with the right dispositions in the wrong environment, who failed in life at obtaining the respect and acceptance they desired.  This is mainly an issue over status and rank, not family values.

What Has Changed? 

I had to take the previous post on Family Values down because I was not satisfied with the strength of my argument.  Most of the material has been completely rewritten in order to incorporate new research.  First, the argument that conservatives have on a lack of family values causing mass shootings is that there is a link between unstable family structures, namely single-parented, and child abuse and neglect.  This risk factor is stronger than I thought.  But we do not know what it is about traditional families that cause a decreased risk.  Because single-parented households are usually of lower socioeconomic status which is a risk factor for abuse too.

This matters because one of the risk factors for mass shooters is to have been abused by parents or peers (70% of mass shooters). And most but not all of the school mass shooters were from single-parented households.  But this may not mean much.  Here are the rest of the risk factors: near all to have suffered abuse at the hands of their caregivers or peers, feelings of inferiority and despair from subordination, repressed resentment and anger turned outward, a blueprint like the Columbine massacre to aspire to and copy from, a media willing to give them notoriety, and an opportunity like there being more guns in the U.S. than people [3].

But there is another risk factor for abuse which is the attitudes and beliefs that we have on discipline and punishment.  Corporal punishment has dramatically gone down because of laws and social norms largely driven by liberals.  But the core of a conservative’s morality is still in favor of punishment while nurturing is ranked last.  Providing support through nurturing is seen as a weakness, often labeled as coddling by conservatives.  People vary in their fragility and resilience, but there is a lot of research favoring a nurturing environment over a punitive one.  I will explain why their morals are not ideal and then rank them below.

Family Values?  Not Really 

The making of a mass shooter requires more than just a lack of family values.  The values and beliefs that we have do not always translate into what we do.  We have unique personalities, a desire to gain respect amongst our peers, and circumstances that can lead us down the wrong path.  Parents’ morals do not guarantee a well-adjusted child.  As moral as my parents were, I did not look up to them and modeled myself after my peers that ranked the coolest.  A simple-minded conservative comes in and says that the problem can be solved by their values, which would require stable parents, discipline, obedience, and God.  Besides family stability, which may reduce the likelihood of parental abuse or assist with early detection, the rest of their “family values” are irrelevant.

Conservatives could argue that a belief in the traditional family brings family stability which is linked to a child’s wellbeing and later success in life.  God, so they claim, reinforces this belief.  Yes, both family stability, especially a two-parent structure, and socioeconomic status are linked to better outcomes in a child’s well-being and success in life.  But if we control for family stability and socioeconomic status, then parents do not have as much influence as they believe, at least not for shaping their personality, intelligence, or success.  Their genes and peers shape them more.  Twin studies prove this fact beyond any doubt.  Still, a stable two-parent family could increase the likelihood of parents being present and looking for warning signs.  But it is not that simple.

The Buffalo shooter was raised by “God-fearing” parents and was “the furthest from racist as can be”.  But their belief in God and not being racist are irrelevant to what a withdrawn and alienated adolescent does, which is to spend hours on the internet identifying with other lost individuals.  An involved parent could of course ask their son questions and monitor their internet traffic.  But withdrawn children are difficult to get through to, are obsessed with their quest of validating their beliefs, and will likely find a way anyhow.  Many seem to resist therapy too.  What about having affectionate and loving parents to prevent the child from withdrawing. It does not work that way.  Personalities that favor introversion and peer rejection will overwhelmingly shape the child’s behavior.

Many mass shooters experience childhood abuse and exposure to violence at a young age, often at the hands of their parents.  Parental suicide is common, as is physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence in the home, and severe bullying by classmates. [3]

For mass shooters in schools, we need to look at parental and peer abuse.  And we know that most, but not all, school mass shooters were raised by single-parented households.  This could be a coincidence.  On the other hand, being the only caregiver in the household may influence how they treat the child.  Studies show that socio-economically disadvantaged households, like single households, are at an increased risk to mistreat their children.  They also have less time and resources to solve problems.  This has nothing to do with family values.  It is a matter of status (i).  Why would being lower in socioeconomic status (SES) make us want to harm our children?  There is no reason to think that low SES people do not know the golden rule.  One possible reason is that there is an overwhelming burden for those lower in SES to cope with life’s challenges, which leads to stress. Stress leads to many things.

Lower socio-economic status is theorized to be a significant risk factor for child abuse and neglect because of the stress it places on the caregivers in the family and its relationship to social supports and access to resources. [4]

There must also be something about the child that elicits feelings of contempt and hate from the parent in order to be abusive.  This is unthinkable because they are innocent children to be loved and cared for.  But if mass shooters are often rejected and bullied by their peers because they are undesirable and inadequate, the same feelings are likely to be felt in their parents.  Undesirable children, especially those who border on having a disability, are at a greater risk of being abused and neglected. Family values take a backseat when we feel someone deserves a beating.  Anger, rage, and aggression hijack our ability to have self-control.  Abusers know what they are doing is wrong and hide or justify it.  In short, there is something else going on here besides family values.

Conservative’s Morals

It matters more to a conservative that a person is morally weak (lacking in self-discipline and self-reliance) or violating moral authority (a criminal) than that he is poor, sick, physically weak, or un-cared for. [2]

The attitudes and beliefs that we have toward childrearing can affect our parenting style.  A conservative’s morality contains values that would increase the chances of corporal punishment.  When parents are less nurturing, more authoritarian, and the children are fragile, then this can be harmful to their well-being and future success in life.  Fortunately, the conservative morality has been worked out for us by George Lakoff, which is shown here.  It is based on a “strict father” mode of reasoning where self-reliance and self-discipline rank higher than nurturing and caring for others [1].  These moral priorities help shape how they reason and vote on issues.  Notice that moral strength is on top and moral nurturance is on the bottom—the exact opposite of liberal morality.

This worldview makes the assumption that life is a struggle for survival and that it is best to control people through rewards and punishments.  Family values are about children obeying the father and learning self-discipline and self-reliance.  The goal of conservative parents is to raise competitive and productive adults.  It is an authoritarian arrangement where the father is the head of the household and one-way communication is the way to keep everyone in their place.  But family therapists and researchers warn against these types of arrangments as child abuse is more likely to occur.  Emotional and physical abuse is often hidden because of fear of retaliation and questioning authority is not permissible.  In reading their worldview, this is not a world in which I want to live in.

If he has not worked hard enough, he is slothful and hence morally weak.  If he is not talented enough, then he ranks lower than others in the natural order…The rich (who are talented enough and who have worked hard enough to become rich) deserve their wealth and the poor (either through lack of industry or talent) deserve their poverty. [2]

The moral order, which is third in priority, defines what the natural order is.  The natural order is what forms our social hierarchy, which contributes to our inequality.  Where does God rank in the natural order?  Well, he is on top of course, and his absence must be the cause of mass shootings.  This can be dismissed out of hand.  After all, there is nothing unique in the Bible by way of wisdom that is not already taught, at least the non-hateful and violent parts.  But it is part of the mystique like “family values” that conservatives cannot let go of.  The rank is what angry and hateful white men reflect upon, giving them a moment’s worth of hubris. It is this very reflection, externalizing their problems, and identifying with other haters that give rise to a strand of mass shootings.

George Lakoff

Courtesy of George Lakoff

Liberals have been fighting against unfair pecking orders like the one here for decades since hierarchy breakdowns would ease tensions between these artificial boundaries.  Hierarchies at high schools are formed by who can garner the most attention and respect due to their attributes and abilities.  The ones on top do the putdowns and the ones on the bottom take it.  The ones on the bottom are obviously the ones less valued and respected.  They are of low rank and not taken seriously.  Any attention they receive is by virtue of being made fun of.  This form of abuse can lead to subordination which yields feelings of inadequacy, despair, and inferiority.  The idea of subordination is the theme amongst mass shooters.  Pecking orders remain despite teaching family values.

Making of a Mass Shooter

Sometimes an individual’s efforts to raise their status may or may not be successful.  People can have strong desires to obtain more status, sex, care, love, respect, and support than they are currently receiving, but they are losing in the battle to bring such things about. [2]

If we believe that family values mean two parents and are socioeconomically advantaged, then we are at a decreased chance of raising a mass shooter.  But this is probably due to having more time, resources, and knowledge at our disposal to increase our involvement, solve behavioral problems, and detect early warning signs.   The attitudes that we have towards raising the child could decrease abuse and the use of corporal punishment, which are risk factors for one aspect of what makes a mass shooter.  Although having a nurturing and loving environment might decrease a child’s behavioral problems, the correlations are weak and unlikely candidates. Individual personality differences and life circumstances, like peer rejection and parental abuse, are likely to play a more significant role in the child’s behavior.  When we view it as a problem in status, we see that family values may not be as relevant.

Status is what others have that we want like beauty, wealth, friends, respect, and competence.  I think it is within status that we may find our answer.  Our culture is obsessed with getting ahead in life versus getting along.  This puts pressure on economically disadvantaged caregivers and may give rise to children with propensities to become mass shooters.  Caregivers who get caught in the trap of viewing themselves as inferior because of a failure to meet standards are at increased risk for self-hate and often live unsatisfied lives.  This leads to fragile self-esteem, and we become easily threatened, making us lash out at any signs of disrespect from our children. The same can be said for the mass shooters. They failed to bring about the respect and acceptance they thought they deserved, which our culture places a premium on, which leads to the repressed anger and hate that is redirected to the “other”.

Not everyone who is abused and disgruntled becomes a mass shooter.  It takes all of the unique circumstances as the risk factors in the beginning identified.  We also need a culture that places an emphasis on success, individualism, and the American dream. These create social norms and expectations on where we are supposed to be in life, which if not met only reinforce our low status. The American dream which says that we can be successful based only on effort is an illusion.  It takes privilege, ability, and chance too.  The emphasis on rugged individualism only increases our isolation since it forgoes solidarity and community.  We make the conditions rough.  We judge others based on their appearances, abilities, and successes, which sets a high standard for some.  We also make it difficult for ourselves by having unrealistic expectations.  We cannot forget that at one time these people were like us.

The ease of gun access in the United States has always been around but now AR-15s are trendy.  These guns are rarely actually used for self-defense and are more of a romantic love affair of what they symbolize, which is power and strength.  The dopamine hit we get when we hold and fire a gun is like a drug.  In interviewing a lot of the mass shooters, many of them loved their weapons because “they can’t reject them.”  Guns give otherwise powerless individuals—those who cannot get what they want out of life—the feeling that they can gain respect through fear.  It works because most mass shooters want to go out with the ultimate expression of power, which is to take the lives of innocent others. It is better to be feared for something horrible than to be unknown and worthless. So they seek notoriety which our media panders to, and they model their massacres based on prior high-status ones, such as Columbine.  Most mass shooters have a final crisis in their lives that pushes them to the edge.  The final onslaught is liberation for them because it represents the avenging of those that have wronged them who they were at one point powerless over.

Failed Struggle

I believe there are deeper psychological mechanisms at work that get triggered when people remain resentful and angry.  When we are faced with constant rejection and often fall short of standards, we are going to feel depressed, which many of the mass shooters suffered from. Depression is the result of a failed struggle.  So their struggles to obtain enough acceptance and respect in life have been thwarted. The mind sends signals to make the individual feel inferior and lowers self-esteem.  This signals to others that we are of no threat.  It lowers us in rank.  Shame makes us feel like we want to hide, so we can recoup to fight another day.  The is an evolutionary adaptation to prevent further defeat and get us off a fruitless path in life.  So when our goals in life are too often blocked, then we will feel defeated.  Unless we take stock of the situation, submit and accept our lowered status, then defeat can lead to depression.

Normally we use assertive communication or anger in interpersonal conflict to preserve our self-worth and convictions.   But if our constant attempts at fighting for self-preservation get blocked, such as pervasive abuse from peers or caregivers, then we are likely to feel defeated and depressed.  But before that happens we can be in a “blocked-escape” or “arrested flight” situation.  We can feel intense anger to want to fight back with a quip or with aggression but are simply blocked because of status differences.  Parents are higher up the hierarchy and wield force over us, and peers can be higher up the ladder than us.  We can ruminate over the injustices of our inability to fight back or to be valued by others and develop deep resentments.  The same reasoning applies to us if we fail to be successful in our endeavors.  It is blocked goals, whatever they may be—to fight back, to win, to get accepted, and to succeed.

So we are at the point where these mass shooters have blocked their goals of acceptance, self-preservation, and success.  The solution of course is to accept our status.  This is a real documented effect.  Those that are willing to not take themselves too seriously and lower their expectations can reduce their feelings of anger and resentment.  They will not suffer from depression. When we are in a state of a “failed struggle” which sums the mass shooters’ lives up, then the options are either to fight or accept, or depression will ensue.  To fight is to escalate in trying—to get accepted, fight harder, or succeed.  They chose to fight.  They were, however, fighting an unwinnable battle.  They perceived that they were stuck in their low-status position no matter what.  The idea of a mass shooting is thus very attractive.  It was the only path they could see in their depressed and hateful mindset.  The only option.

Paul Gilbert

Courtesy of Paul Gilbert


It should be clear that it is largely not about morals.  People forget that we are just as much designed to kill as we are to love.  We can experience hate and anger just as much as we can experience compassion and empathy.  Morals are society’s solution to hijacking deep psychological mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years.  Morals are an attempt at making more just, free, and safe societies.  There is no guarantee that they will be translated into action.  A big problem with conservatives is they are not enlightened.  They don’t favor understanding over ignorance.  Look at their positions towards science.  How will we ever learn to prevent mass shooters?  This does not excuse the actions of mass shooters but only attempts to explain.


i) The research that is available on child abuse has identified several risk factors with often contradictory results but no causes.  The most prominent ones include abused parents who abuse their children, socioeconomic status, family stability and structure (stable two-parent), attitudes toward punishment and violence, isolation, and psychopathologies (depression, substance abuse, etc.).  Non-biological parents and an unstable family structure do correlate strongly with being a risk factor for child abuse.

Let us take the idea that we model our behavior after our parents.  If this were true, then why do a vast majority of children that are abused (75% of them) never go on to be violent offenders or abuse their children?  This could be a spurious relationship, and it may be shared genes that increase the likelihood of anger and aggression.  It could also be that those that abuse their children have a link to coming from lower SES.  All of these risk factors are circumstances, and we do not have data on the person’s personality nor what their mental states were that contribute to the actual abuse.  We do not know how inadequate and unruly the child was either which would increase one’s tendency for abuse when disciplining.

ii) Many mass shooters turn to radical and extremist views, especially the hate groups of racism.  They do this for acceptance and to validate their beliefs of hate.  This fills a void in a rejected and unsuccessful person.  They most likely have self-hate and externalized it to “others”.  They are often looking for a scapegoat to blame their problems on too.


[1] Gilbert, Paul.  Subordination and Defeat.

[2] Lakoff, George.  Moral Politics.

[3] Peterson Ph.D., Jillian. The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic

[4] dozens of research articles which I will cite shortly