President Obama took 23 executive actions on Wednesday to curb firearm-related deaths. That and his proposals to Congress for new gun laws are a necessary response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Perhaps his most important action is a directive for new research “on the causes and prevention of gun violence.” More restrictions on firearms may keep guns away from killers, but a better understanding of the roots of violent behavior – and then addressing them – would be far more effective. Most gun crimes are not done by people with mental illness but by sane people who are prone to violence.
Unfortunately, the White House seemed to focus the new research only on the relationship between violence and the kind of video games and other media images that may influence a killer. While such data would be helpful, kids who imitate fictional violence often do so because they lack a supportive family.
Mr. Obama has often noted the need to promote marriage and family – his own family certainly serves as a model. But he must also back research that looks at links between violence and children born out of wedlock or raised by single parents.
One recent study by the Brookings Center on Children and Families, for example, found that children whose births resulted from unintended pregnancy are more likely to “engage in delinquent and criminal behavior later in life.” Author and noted psychologist Andrew Solomon finds that the first risk factor in the making of a criminal is being raised by a single parent.
Current statistics on the home lives of children are not encouraging.
Nearly 26 percent are raised by single parents, and that figure jumps to 72 percent for blacks and 71 percent for the poor. For mothers with only a high school education, more than 4 out of 10 of their children are born out of wedlock – or three times the rate of the 1980s. Only a third of births to women who are unmarried and not cohabiting are intended.
Cohabitation, in fact, has taken off. The number of couples living together without the commitment and protection of being married has more than doubled since the 1990s. In 2012, 40 percent of unmarried partners had children younger than 18.
Both public and private leaders “refuse to take on the issue of children raised by single parents – despite all the statistics showing harm – or deal with it in a meaningful way,” said Robert Doar, commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, in a speech last week.
Mr. Doar said New York City – which has about 50,000 out-of-wedlock births a year – is considering a campaign, much like antismoking campaigns, to show young people the effects on a child who is born out of wedlock.
But he also wants Obama to take similar action – perhaps even using his second inaugural to announce one.
“There could be no better voice on the important issue of family and the role fathers play in the lives of children than the president of the United States,” Doar said.
“With the first lady, he sets absolutely the correct example. But he says so little. And he never turns his hypercritical eye on this important issue.”
When more than half of births to women under 30 are now outside of marriage, government cannot ignore violence by children of some of these homes.
One sign of society’s disapproval of these trends was the decision Tuesday by the Oxygen cable channel to pull a reality TV show slated for later this year about a famous rap artist, Shawty Lo, who has fathered 11 children with 10 different mothers. Oxygen, an NBCUniversal cable network owned by Comcast, was bombarded by complaints from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Change.org, and the Parents Television Council.
Children need the qualities and love of a stable family to learn how to behave later in life. While many children of single parents do just fine, the many exceptions too often end up with troubled lives. A Brookings Institution study found that almost all the increase in child poverty since the 1970s would have disappeared if parents today had married at 1970 rates.
More research on this problem – and then executive attention – could do as much if not more to curb mass shootings and other gun violence as all the toughened laws on firearms.