10/23/2013 05:26 pm ET

Should We Blame The Parents Of The Nevada School Shooter?


Atop the numbing news of yet another school shooting, comes word that the parents of the 12-year-old shooter might be charged with allowing the boy access to the Ruger 9mm semiautomatic weapon that he brought from home.

One teacher died and two students were wounded on Monday in Sparks, Nev. The name of the gunman (gunchild?) has not been released, police said, out of “respect for his grieving parents.”

And therein lies an all too familiar dilemma. We grieve with these parents, but we also blame them. We put ourselves in their shoes -- losing your child and carrying the burden of what they did to others before they died. And yet, we also can’t believe the parents didn’t know. Because, quite simply, if it is possible for THEM not to see the truth of THEIR children, then that means it is possible for US not to see what OURS are capable of. The idea that doing the best you can is sometimes not enough is its own kind of horror.

A few years ago, a string of student-led massacres -- Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ak., Columbine, Colo. -- led to lawsuits by the parents of the slain against the parents of the shooters. I wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine about those lawsuits, asking whether that was a legitimate -- and useful -- place to put the blame.

Part of my research included combing through the depositions of the parents of Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old who killed three girls at a prayer meeting in West Paducah. When I read the parents' descriptions of how they had raised, disciplined, loved and worried about Michael, and compared those to their son’s discussions with a court appointed psychiatrist about what was going on in his head and his life at the same time, I was scared. Not because life in the Carneal home was gothic, but because it was just so ... ordinary.

The family’s only computer was out in the open. His parents checked his backpack every day after school and periodically read papers lying around his room for a sense of his life. The gun his father used for hunting was in a lockbox in the garage. When he misbehaved -- cursing at his mother, little things like that -- they punished him. When he had trouble at school -- a school newspaper gossip column suggested that he was gay -- they talked it through with him and were surprised at how he seemed able to shrug it off and move on.

Only after his arrest and life sentence, with no chance of parole until he is almost 40, did his parents learn that he had not shrugged off anything. Or that he’d figured out how to jimmy the lock on the gun safe. Or when he went to ride his bike during Thanksgiving dinner he was actually stealing more guns from a neighbor (though he was back from that ride in time to hug his visiting grandparents good-bye.) Or that he’d written essays about shooting up the school that he never put in his backpack. Or that he was downloading porn on the school computer and selling it to classmates.

Reading the parallel accounts, I wanted to find the thing Michael’s parents did wrong. Then I could vow never to do that thing and inoculate myself and my sons. Instead I found page after page of banal complexity. As I wrote back then:

The lesson of the shootings may well be that this could happen to anyone. Has there ever been a child who has not had something to hide? ... All teen-agers hide things, and if -- like Michael Carneal, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- they are doing something evil, then they will work even harder to hide it.

We all wonder how parents can miss a gun in the bedroom or a bomb-making setup in the garage. But living with a teen-ager is living with an intimate stranger, and parents are left to puzzle through when to step in and when to let go. It is an equation complicated by the fact that parents can be blinded by love for their child.

It may not be, as these lawsuits indirectly claim, that parents have gotten worse. It may be that parenting has gotten harder. The world has changed so much around us that what our parents did is no longer enough. There have always been kids on the edge. Increasingly, there are forces conspiring to push them over.

Which leads us back to Sparks Middle School, and the 12-year-old boy who showed up with a semiautomatic weapon at 7:15 AM on the first day back from fall break. I have been very public about my disagreement with those who would have guns in homes with children, and even going so far as to call it lax parenting. But is it criminal? And is punishing parents when children do the wrong thing the way to keep other children from doing the same?

Most public debate is a pendulum, and while the lawsuits of a dozen years ago were dismissed or settled, blaming parents seems to be back as a strategy and gut response. Schools have started fining the parents of students who are late too often or come unprepared for tests. Lawsuits have been brought against the parents of a scooter-riding 8-year-old who crashed into a pedestrian , or scratched a car. Sympathy for the Sandy Hook shooter’s mother, herself a victim, was sharply colored by the feeling that she was responsible for her own fate. And hours after the Sparks Middle School gunfire there was already a debate over whether the parents should be charged.

In an essay titled “Leave The Nevada Shooter’s Parents Alone,” LA Times writer Paul Whitefield wrote:

Should the parents have locked the gun away so the boy didn’t have access to it? Absolutely. That’s an action any sensible gun owner should take. And I’m sure the parents are tortured by that very thought right now, as they deal with their grief at losing a child and their undoubted horror at the destruction he caused.

But singling them out for punishment is pointless. It’s taking the easy way out.

In a nation awash in guns, a nation that has seen multiple mass shootings in the last few years -- often with guns legally obtained -- does anyone really think that making an example out of these parents will make a difference?


Whitefield goes on to suggest that blaming the parents is wrong because it spends energy in the wrong place. A more effective solution, he says, is to “deal with gun violence in a comprehensive way -- such as the expanded background checks and limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that Congress rejected in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre.” I agree.

But blaming the parents might also be wrong (I say “might” because most facts are still unknown, and there is the possibility they are directly culpable...) for another reason too. We would be doing that not out of a desire to prevent the next massacre, but rather to distance ourselves from this one. It allows us the comfortable fiction that those bad parents could never be us, and those poorly parented kids could never be ours.