Monday, March 05, 2018

On school shootings, part 1

Okay, I am going to write about guns a little, except it's not really guns. It's not even really so much school shootings as it is about perception and communication.

I should back up.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting there have been many discussions going around, and there are many comments I could make. One stood out, both because I saw multiple references to it in a fairly short period of time, and also because I knew it was false.

The statement was that the common factor in these shootings is fatherless boys. That's not true. For some of the shooters, okay, but among the various common factors that is not even a high-ranking one.

I wrote a fairly long Facebook post with some detailed comments, but if something feels important to say, I guess I just don't feel right until it is up on the blog.

I want to start with how ideas get out there. Apparently Rick Santorum has put forward the missing father thing, but I think a video from Matt Kibbe (noted libertarian and co-writer of the Tea Party manifesto) has had more of an impact.

In that video Kibbe names four shooters who were not living with their fathers (though this does not necessarily mean that they had no contact with their fathers). However, without even trying hard I can give you five more who lived in two-parent homes and one who lived exclusively with his father.

There is some coincidence in that. I remember the Thurston high school shooter (I am not going to give names even when I know them, to avoid giving fame to them) because I went to college near Thurston, and although they were far away from where I went to high school, one team did encounter them once during playoffs. It felt close, like I knew that even though I didn't know anyone who was there, I knew people who knew people who were there. The details of that stick out pretty well. He lived with both parents and he killed them both before he went and shot up the school.

Proximity (and some common religious ties) also made the Reynolds High School shooting stand out, and he only lived with his father.

So much for coincidence; the rest was deliberate learning. When I was working on the Long Reading List, trying to be a better resource for teens, I read Dave Cullen's Columbine. That told me about two more shooters. In addition, the notes led me to another book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. 

Rampage had five authors, because it was the result of an investigative committee. The focused specifically on the shootings in Jonesboro and Paducah, but there was an exhaustive study of the data on many other shootings with all of the factors tallied and put in tables.

That let me know the family background of three more shooters. There was a lot more information in there, and a lot of it was more pertinent to a school shooting discussion. It was still helpful for me to immediately recognize a false statement.

The false statement resonates emotionally: Of course! Broken families! It makes so much sense!

In this case it is not just that the statement is false, but also that it is built upon false assumptions about fathers and families. Giving into that won't get us anywhere. Engaging in critical thinking might.

It could also lead to hedging, like "Maybe the fathers were there but were emotionally distant." People will cling to false statements that feel right and support their worldview.

Some stereotypes came up that are pretty important and we will get to them, but here's the other thing about reading a book: Rampage listed five common factors that were always present in some form. Granted, it's from 2005 so things could have shifted during the past decade. I admit that.

Still, doesn't it make sense to at least see what the people who studied really hard came up with, versus the people who make assumptions based on a few select observations and an outdated understanding of how the world is supposed to work?

Well, if you have been taught to be suspicious of intellectuals, perhaps not, but I like reading, and that's where I'm going next.

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