When the Child Parents Love Becomes a Shooter

Many families of killers are left to sort through their confusion and shock as some assume they are to blame.

A candle, rose petals, and a partially intact American flag lie on a sidewalk
A sidewalk memorial for the victims of the shooting last weekend in Dayton, Ohio (Scott Olson / Getty)

Last weekend, a shooter killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, before being killed by police. The suspect was identified as Connor Betts, a 24-year-old, and among the victims was his younger sister, Megan. “It seems to just defy believability that he would shoot his own sister,” Dayton’s police chief said. “But it’s also hard to believe he didn’t recognize that was his sister, so we just don’t know.”

Many in Dayton, and in the country, are trying to comprehend the incident, not least the parents of the siblings. Having lost two children, they are left with a brutal twist on a question faced by so many other parents in the era of mass shootings: How does one make sense of having a child who has killed several people?

The parents of the suspected Dayton shooter have not yet issued any public statements, but the reflections of others in similar situations illustrate the many confusing emotions a parent might experience after an incident like this. Andrew Solomon, the author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, has had intimate conversations with multiple parents of people who committed violent crimes. In those conversations, he told me, he was struck by how different parents’ reactions could be.

He first mentioned Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan and another teenager killed a dozen classmates and a teacher 20 years ago at Columbine High School. “When it first happened,” she told Solomon in an interview for his book, “I used to wish that I had never had children, that I had never married … But over time, I’ve come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them—even at the price of this pain—has been the single greatest joy of my life.” (She was speaking of her own pain, she clarified, not the pain that others suffered because of her son.)

Solomon told me that in speaking with Peter Lanza—the father of Adam, who killed 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012—he saw a different way of processing a family tragedy. Lanza, as Solomon wrote, wished his son had never been born, explaining, “That didn’t come right away. That’s not a natural thing, when you’re thinking about your kid. But, God, there’s no question.”

In these conversations with parents, one commonality Solomon has noticed—in addition to a sense of disbelief and confusion—is that parents often dwell on who their children used to be. He recalled interviewing a mother whose child was in prison for committing a violent crime: “I said, ‘Do you miss seeing him?’ She said, ‘I don’t miss who he is at all, but I miss who he was. And I miss the person I thought he would turn out to be.”

The love for who a child used to be is not easily extinguished. “Parents love their kids, even though they’ve committed a horrible act,” Peter Langman, a psychologist who studies school shootings, told me. When a school shooter survives, he said, “the parents often are at the trials, visit them in prison, [and] support them in whatever way they can.”

Trying to make sense of a child’s actions can be torturous, though. Langman pointed me to an account of a mother confronting her son, who was responsible for a 1999 shooting at Heritage High School, outside of Atlanta. She asked him several times why he didn’t take his own life, at one point saying, “I don’t know how you took innocent children but you were afraid to do anything to you. That really has me puzzled. You didn’t think twice about doing it to them.”

After a shooting, this sort of confusion abounds. “Everybody starts asking, What made this person do that?” Laura Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington, told me. “And I think the parents [of shooters] even more so are at a complete loss, because they feel like they should be able to explain it—they knew their child, probably better than most people.”

“After these types of events, there tend to be memorial events and funds created—and rightfully so—for the victims and for the victims’ families,” Wilson went on. “But in a way, the parents [and family members] of the shooter are also experiencing a loss.”

Solomon, too, was mindful of what these parents must endure. “The general social response to the news of something like this is to presume that the child came from an awful, terrible family that somehow caused it—and families therefore feel enormous guilt for the behavior of their children,” he said. To be sure, a troubled home environment seems to be one factor of many that can put kids at risk for extreme, violent behavior. But in Solomon’s experience, in most cases, “the parents actually were pretty good, loving parents doing their best.”

Both he and Wilson said the parents of shooters shouldn’t be cast as being at fault. “I think if we could move away from a narrative of blaming those parents,” Solomon said, “it would be a great liberation … These families deserve our compassion, rather than our disgust.”

Morgan Ome contributed reporting to this article.