What do School Shootings have to do with Sexual Ethics?
Updated: Aug 19
A N D Y W I L L I A M S ‘ S T O R Y
As many of you know, my journey as a filmmaker began after the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. More specifically, it was a shooting that followed two years after Columbine. On March 5, 2001 at 9:20 am, 15-year old Andy Williams walked into his school in Santee, California with his dad’s .22 caliber revolver where he shot 15 students and teachers, killing two.
I have vivid memories of reading the story in Time Magazine alone in my dad’s office after school. I was 19; a few months away from my high school graduation. As I read the story of this 15-year old who had suffered so much over his parents’ divorce and the pain of being bullied at school—the emptiness finally leading him to try and “commit suicide by cop”—I literally wept. I wept not only for the kids who died, but for Andy himself. Police finally found him kneeling on the floor of the school bathroom with the gun in his hands. He wanted to kill himself, but couldn’t do it. Andy surrendered, and was later sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
That day in my dad’s office, I knelt and prayed that God would show me how I could have some kind of impact on this unspeakable pain that was destroying lives and leading to such senseless violence, and that if he would, I would commit my life to that cause. (It wasn’t long after that, as I walked out of an especially powerful prayer meeting at my Christian academy, these words came into my mind completely out of the blue: “I’m going to be a filmmaker.”)
Andy Williams is now incarcerated at California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility & State Prison. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2052 at 66 years of age. And for the last 14 years since he was imprisoned, I have endeavored to understand the makings of the mass shootings that are rapidly becoming more and more prevalent in the United States.
R O O T S
My studies and observations over the years have convinced me that sexual permissiveness and its impact on family stability is a source of great suffering in our society: absolutely one of the root causes in the inscrutably complex problem of mass shootings.
This correlation may seem like a stretch to some, but allow me to share what I’ve learned.
As I suffered through the indelible, primal wounds of my own parents’ divorce; as I watched friends from unstable homes try to fill their emotional voids by turning to unhealthy sexual relationships and other harmful behaviors, and subsequently suffer even more pain; as I observed stable families and the good choices their kids tended to make, I became increasingly convinced that sexual irresponsibility shakes the foundations of healthy societies. Lack of sexual discipline begets pain that begets more poor choices and more pain, on and on from generation to generation.
Brad Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, reveals an interesting finding: “Nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s ‘list of U.S. school attacks’ involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place. This is not to minimize the importance of debates about gun control or mental health when it comes to understanding these shootings. But as the nation seeks to make sense of these senseless shootings, we must also face the uncomfortable truth that turmoil at home all too often accounts for the turmoil we end up seeing spill onto our streets and schools.”
Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson agrees, “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of variations in urban violence across cities in the United States.”
Andy Williams admitted in an interview to being suicidal for months prior to the shooting. He cited the pain of his parents’ recent divorce, his jarring move across the country, and the death of a friend. His story plays out like a predictable movie: Painful divorce and subsequent inner turmoil and insecurities, compounded by bullying at school; increasingly suicidal thoughts, falling in with the wrong crowd, being pushed to the breaking point.
Sociologist Jeannie A Fry, in her dissertation on the link between family structure and juvenile delinquency: “In my analysis, the most remarkable finding is the association between divorce and juvenile violent crime. Although research findings have varied, divorce was the only change in family structure that significantly predicted changes in rates of juvenile violent crime. Removing the effects of the two remaining control variables, political legitimacy and drug use, divorce has an even stronger, positive correlation with juvenile violent crime (partial correlation = .807). The correlation between divorce and juvenile violent crime rates could be explained using the self-control theory in that it claims the family institution is most critical when instilling self-control in children. Furthermore, a lack of attachment between the child and parent, caused by factors such as divorce, engenders a lack of social and self-control in the child, and increases the likelihood for delinquency. Thus, it is plausible to suggest that higher rates of divorce can lead to an increase in juvenile delinquency.”
Of course, most kids who endure some instability at home don’t turn to gun violence. (More turn to drugs, alcohol, cutting, overeating, etc.) Shootings are simply one of the most extreme and ugly symptoms of a deep, festering wound; one of our most horrifying indicators that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong somewhere deep inside the nation’s collective psyche. Of course, a multitude of other factors come into play, and I believe we should intentionally address each and every one of those factors. But even in the case of mental illness—How much more likely are parents to recognize the problem and get adequate treatment for their child if they aren’t juggling a single parent home or struggling through the emotional turmoil of divorce? And isn’t it clear that traumas at an early age such as divorce, abuse, or family discord are shown to affect a child’s brain at crucial stages of development?
So when it comes to core solutions, I personally find Brad Wilcox’s assessment to be spot on: “If the nation is serious about ending the scourge of school shootings, it must also get serious about strengthening the families that are our first line of defense in preventing our boys from falling into a downward spiral of rage, hopelessness, or nihilism that can end in the kind of senseless violence.”
Delinquent behavior in youth is strongly correlated to turmoil at home. Turmoil at home is strongly correlated to family structure. Family structure is strongly correlated to sexual norms.
W H O ‘ S T O B L A M E ? ( H I N T . . . T H E 6 0 ‘ S ! )
I don’t mean to place the blame on divorce itself, but on a culture of sexual permissiveness which leads to divorce/ broken families/ single parent homes/ teen pregnancies, and the subsequent impact on the children growing up in those emotionally tumultuous situations.
A lack of education is also to blame. People are simply not taught principles of marital compatibility; not taught to recognize and confront the personal baggage that will sabotage their future relationships; not taught to identify the emotional voids that predispose them to seek love and affection in the wrong places; not taught how to avoid unhealthy people or dynamics; not taught good relational skills or conflict resolution.
On top of it all, there is a strange lack of awareness for the emotional consequences of having multiple sexual partners (a phenomenon that has become completely acceptable, even encouraged in our society). The strong chemical and spiritual bonds created during sex aren’t easy to break. Those who do go from partner to partner begin to experience attachment and bonding issues. They’re more likely to divorce. More likely to experience depression. More likely to be dissatisfied with their sex lives after they do marry. More likely to have affairs. We seem unable to connect these consequences to their true sources.
And the most recent offender: a politically-correct, morally relative culture that would rather “tolerate” dangerous choices than be real about the consequences.
What we’re faced with is the painful reality that—despite all our attempts to normalize broken families; despite all the initiatives to ubiquitize condoms; despite the myriad of books on how to blend families; even despite our attempts to make light of it all in TV shows like Modern Family—at the end of the day, no one really wants to go from one sexual partner to the next in a hopeless search for lasting love. No teenage girl is ready to support a kid. Divorce is never a cakewalk. No child ever wants to choose which parent to live with, or get blended into another family. And abortion, no matter your views on reproductive rights, is never something to celebrate.
Every one of these examples, like it or not, causes deep and cutting wounds that, without proper help, can last for decades. And they all revolve around one thing. Sex.
Human beings are wired for lasting, committed, monogamous love. And “there is no condom for the heart and mind.”
S O L U T I O N S
It follows that one of the best ways to prevent the aforementioned heartache (and its sometimes violent outcomes) is to educate young adults on how to make smart decisions about sex and relationships—decisions which will certainly affect their health and happiness, and that of their children, more than almost any other factor in life. (Just ask your friendly neighborhood psychologist.)
The Church has always been a frontrunner in championing ideals of sexual purity, fidelity, self-discipline, monogamy, abstinence till marriage. But in recent decades, these messages are falling by the wayside even in the church. Those who support traditional values are often considered judgmental, irrelevant, conservative. And statistics show us that 89% of Christian youth now engage in sex with multiple partners before getting married, and cohabitation has increased 900% since the 1960s—behavior that has been shown to cause emotional issues and lead to marital failure (not to mention STDs and unwanted pregnancies).
Yet secular studies continue to back up the church’s message, showing that when people have sex or move in with someone “before they have the maturity and experience to choose compatible partners and to conduct themselves in ways that can sustain a long-term relationship,” the consequences can be devastating. “Early entry into marriage or cohabitation, especially prior to age 23, is the critical risk factor for divorce.” (Sociologist Arielle Kuperberg)
How tragic that the very safeguards which are intended to bring life and abundance are now considered irrelevant and stifling.
The film will give churches a platform to discuss sexual boundaries with their young people. Paired with a study guide, it will train young adults to make healthy decisions in dating and marriage. It will strengthen the church to be a model of lasting love to the rest of the world.
I asked God how I could help make an impact on the festering pain that was manifesting in symptoms like school shootings. He said—Make a movie about purity.
S H A M E – B A S E D S E X E D U C A T I O N
One thing the film does NOT intend to do is create a culture of guilt and judgment when it comes to sex. It’s designed to help youth pastors and young adults create a safe space for real conversation. It will celebrate the beauty of sex in its most glorious context—that of a committed, lasting, passionate relationship—and it will celebrate the grace and mercy of a God who can bring beauty out of the ashes of even our worst mistakes and tragedies, while at the same time pointing the way to healthy choices and abundant life.
P R O J E C T S T A T U S & P R A Y E R R E Q U E S T S
My Exec Producer is just waiting on me to finish the next draft of the script before we meet to discuss next steps. Please pray the Holy Spirit will guide the writing process. Pray for impact.
If you made it this far in this epic dissertation of a newsletter—congratulations! Just wanted to share a little (or a lot) more about the inspiration for the project, and why this particular cause is one I am so passionate about. Love the feedback and dialogue; keep it comin.’
You can make a tax-deductible donation to the project at puremovie.org.
“I stand in awe of your laws.” Psalm 119:120