In the days and weeks after mass shootings, the sense of pain and shock tends to give way to a bruised and desperate kind of curiosity: How did this killer become so interested in weaponry? How – especially if he was mentally ill -- did he get so many guns? How did his family not pick up any signs that something was wrong?
In the case of the killer Christopher Harper-Mercer, who died in his attack on Umpqua Community College in Oregon, there’s plenty we still don’t know. But one of the most disturbing facts that’s come out is that his interest in guns seems to have been stoked by his mother, who was not only a gun user but a self-righteous one. Today’s New York Times reports:
Unlike his father, who said on television that he had no idea Mr. Harper-Mercer cared so deeply about guns, his mother was well aware of his fascination. In fact, she shared it: In a series of online postings over a decade, Ms. Harper, a nurse, said she kept numerous firearms in her home and expressed pride in her knowledge about them, as well as in her son’s expertise on the subject.
The killer’s mother, a divorced nurse named Laurel Harper, kept a small arsenal in the apartment she shared with her son, and often commented on both medical issues and handguns on Yahoo Answers. The Times again:
In an online forum, answering a question about state gun laws several years ago, Ms. Harper took a jab at “lame states” that impose limits on keeping loaded firearms in the home, and noted that she had AR-15 and AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, along with a Glock handgun. She also indicated that her son, who lived with her, was well versed in guns, citing him as her source of information on gun laws, saying he “has much knowledge in this field.”
As disturbing as this is on its own – a mother who connects with her son not through a shared love of hiking or soccer or music or books but rather discharging military weaponry – it has a frightening echo that’s not mentioned in the Times story: Adam Lanza, the mentally disturbed man who slaughtered children in Newtown, Conn., also seemed to connect with his mother most powerfully through handguns. Nancy Lanza, in fact, took her son shooting when he was only four.
From The Progressive:
The late Nancy Lanza in Newtown grew up with firearms and had a pistol permit. She returned to shooting with more intensity, according to one family friend, after her 2009 divorce. She wanted to bond with her youngest son, Adam, especially, who five years before, at 13, had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and who, instead of getting better, had been showing signs of social dysfunction and anxiety.
"Shooting was a pastime in which the family engaged," reads the Connecticut State's Attorney report of the Sandy Hook massacre released last month. "Both the mother and the shooter took National Rifle Association (NRA) safety courses. The mother thought it was good to learn responsibility for guns. Both would shoot pistols and rifles at a local range and the shooter was described as quiet and polite."
There are plenty of parents who hunt with their children perfectly safely. And it’s not fair to demonize single mothers, which may be why the Times did not mention the similarity between the two families.
But in both the cases of Roseburg and Newtown, parents knew that their sons had serious mental problems – Nancy Lanza described her son as a “lost cause” -- and still heavily armed them and trained them to kill people.
It’s enough to make you wonder: What the hell were they thinking? In one case, we’ll never know: Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother on his way out the door. But dozens of people and their families paid the price.
A lot of the criticism from those advocating restrictions on gun ownership concentrates on bad laws and the nation’s culture of violence. We need to fix both. But the details of these stomach-turning cases remind us that these murderers were made at home. Until parents face up to what they’re doing when they give a dangerous person in their care weaponry and the skills to use it, this kind of horror will happen again and again.