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With Mass Murderers, a Different Profile

A look at some of the highest-profile cases reveals the trend. The Columbine murderers, Harris and Klebold, were both from intact homes. Likewise the Giffords shooter, Jared Loughner. Same for the Aurora movie theater killer, James Holmes; Michael Carneal, of the 1997 Heath High School massacre; the 2006 Amish school killer (who was not Amish); 2007 Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho; the 1998 Thurston High School killer Kip Kinkel; and the 2008 Northern Illinois University murderer Steven Kazmierczak (whose mother had died two years before the shooting, but when Steven had already turned 26). Although he fits a somewhat different pattern of crime (political terrorist), 2009 Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan also grew up in an intact family.

Exceptions are the San Ysidro McDonald’s (1984) shooter James Huberty, who grew up in a home in which a parent had abandoned him, although it was his mother who had left. Similarly, notorious Oklahoma mass murderer and terrorist (omitted from the list because he was not a shooter) Timothy McVeigh’s parents divorced when he was 10, but he was raised by his father rather than his mother.

However, for the younger of the two Beltway snipers, Lee Boyd Malvo, (technically not a mass murderer but a spree killer, which is a related phenomenon), fatherlessness does seem to have been a potent factor, motivating him to fall under the influence of the older John Mohammed. He acted as a substitute father -- although, unfortunately, a psychopathic one.

2005 Red Lake massacre perpetrator Jeff Weise also stands out from most of the other shooters as having had a very disruptive family life from an early age, with father absence almost certainly a significant part of the problem (his father had committed suicide when Weise was nine). The perpetrator in the 1989 Cleveland School massacre had a similarly chaotic background. Two other mass murderers on the Mother Jones list had divorced parents, and one had lost his father when he was a young boy.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule; the evidence for absent fathers in this group is hardly overwhelming, and nothing approaching the high percentage of absent fathers (39%) in the early lives of the population of incarcerated criminals as a whole.

To be sure, none of this data on mass murderers constitutes a scientific study. But reading their stories, it is hard not to come the conclusion that there is something far more deeply and profoundly wrong with these people than the absence or presence of a father could ever explain.