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Photo courtesy of: Jon Garcia/The Elkhart Truth/AP Photo

I’m sitting at my computer nearly paralyzed in thought and action, still reeling from the events of yesterday* in my community.

Last night, a 22-year-old gunman entered the grocery store I routinely shopped with my young children for thirteen years, and randomly shot and killed two people with a semi-automatic handgun. When police arrived, the gunman, also armed with a large knife, had the store manager on his knees, taunting him with his weapon. When the police rushed in, they quickly saw what was happening and fired shots at the gunman, allowing the manager to run to safety, and killing the perpetrator. It was ten p.m. on an otherwise typical Wednesday night.

Do I live in Chicago? Los Angeles? New York?  The Bronx?

No, this happened in a small town in Indiana, middle America, with a population of 50-some thousand people. Is the grocery store an inner city one? No, it serviced an affluent portion of the county of Elkhart, with many middle to upper class subdivisions and country homes. This is the heartland of America, literally the place where farmers harvest corn and soybeans and manufacturers produce recreational vehicles. It is sprawling and comfortable, and clean, and neighborly, and up until now, presumably very safe.

We are all stunned.

How did this happen?

Why?

These are the questions neighbors are asking, shocked and appalled at this turn of events. We call to mind the Colorado and Washington, D.C. shootings, Columbine…. Those were distant places with a different sort of people…we thought.

Our space has been violated, our faith shaken, our safety compromised. The victims could have been any of us, making a late night visit to the store or working an evening shift. Two ordinary people who thought they were going to an ordinary place for ordinary reasons didn’t come home last night, victims of a heinous and violent crime.

As details emerge, we struggle to make sense of this event. I know some will politicize it, trying to reduce it to a debate about guns. I’d rather not. While the perpetrator in this crime carried two separate weapons, questions go deeper than the choice of instrument used. The man chose a violent and crazy act. Why?

Was this the ‘perfect storm’ brewing for months or years, or random and haphazard like lightning striking?

I don’t purport to know the inner workings of a sick, evil mind, but it is reported that the shooter had regularly spewed hateful posts over the Internet, showed a fascination with serial killers and posted gruesome images of himself and crime scenes .[1] He also had a drug history, a criminal record, and a record of psychiatric treatment. [2] This wasn’t a random fluke occurrence. It was the crescendo then peak of a dreadful pattern.

While free will is always a factor in individual choices that are made, external influences like environment can and do make a difference. Specifically, when it comes to moral decisions and actions the most important social environment in the history of the world- the family- does matter. Where the family is broken, society will eventually be too.

Weak families are a primary predictor for violent behavior. According to Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D., a psychologist and Senior Fellow and Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute,

 …. there is a link between illegitimacy and violent crime and between the lack of parental attachment and violent crime.

 Over the past thirty years, the rise in violent crime parallels the rise in families abandoned by fathers.

High-crime neighborhoods are characterized by high concentrations of families abandoned by fathers

The rate of violent teenage crime corresponds with the number of families abandoned by fathers.

Even in high-crime inner-city neighborhoods, well over 90 percent of children from safe, stable homes do not become delinquents…

The mother’s strong affectionate attachment to her child is the child’s best buffer against a life of crime.

The father’s authority and involvement in raising his children are … a great buffer against a life of crime.[3]

Dr. Laurence Steinberg is distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. An adaptation of Dr. Steinberg’s statement to the United States House of Representatives bipartisan Working Group on Youth Violence, includes the following:

Among the most powerful predictors of mental health problems among children and adolescents are poor family relationships. Children whose parents are hostile and punitive, as well as those whose parents are neglectful, are at risk for developing all sorts of mental health problems, and children with mental health problems are at risk for developing patterns of antisocial and violent behavior.[4]

The health of the family, the cell of society, is important to us all. In biology, cancer begins in a single cell, spreading to tissues and organs. In society, violence and other problems often begin in the single family, and spread to towns, states, and then nations. We cannot expect a culture of peace globally when there is not peace first at home.

What about violent video games and mental illness and their effect on aggressive behavior and violence? While studies are fairly clear that watching violent video games increases aggression in children[5], researchers debate whether violent video games increase actual violence in adults.[6] Yet the fact remains that many infamous mass murderers of late, including those responsible for the tragedies at Navy Yard, Columbine and in Arizona, are known to have played violent video games for hours, to the point of obsession. Many criminals also have been shown to have (not surprisingly) indications of mental illness, some untreated. A myriad of individual factors create the environment that, when coupled with heredity and free choice can create a literal monster.

Research shows that counties in the United States with more intact families tend to experience lower rates of homicide. [7] Logically, this makes sense. With Mom and Dad stable and around to love, care, protect, discipline and nurture, a child is less likely to spend hours playing (any type) of video games. A child is more supervised; logically he is less stressed and thus has a healthier and safer mental and physical environment. Being an intact family might not ensure a positive behavior outcome of the children, but they sure contribute to it.

I don’t know the family details of the criminal who killed two women yesterday at my old grocery store. However, experiencing it in my community did spark these serious thoughts on the question of violence.

We may not know all the reasons all violent offenders commit their crimes, but we do know this: Involved, loving intact families make a positive difference.

Here’s what we must do:

-We must work harder to make our marriages work

-We must prioritize our children as the gifts and natural resources they are.

-We must admit that divorce and remarriage are not good for children.

-We must not indulge our children in games that may even potentially be harmful to their mental health.

-We must recognize signs of mental illness and see it as real as physical illness.

-We must be ever watchful of our surroundings, and be courageous to report threats when necessary.

-We must commit to support others in their endeavors to commit to the above.

It’s not government money we need.

It’s not a ban on guns that will save us.

Society can be – and will be – saved and safe by way of this first, primary force: strong, loving and decent families.


[7] http://www.familyfacts.org/briefs/26/marriage-and-family-as-deterrents-from-delinquency-violence-and-crime

*This piece partially written yesterday and finished today.

Reference to the crime is here. It has also been covered on numerous venues nationally.

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