Family mass murders account for 41% of deaths

And then some comments on religion.

This isn’t a terror Olympics, or a race to accumulate suffering and pain. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The arguments over which mass murders get more attention, and why, are truly end of days material, and shouldn’t be the stuff of daily social media sport. So I’m not making a federal case of this, and not attacking people for focusing on different stories than the ones that most upset me on a particular day. But as a social scientist, and a family scholar, I suggest people not lose sight of the prominent role of family mass murder in the landscape of senseless American carnage.

The Associated Press/USA TODAY/Northeastern University Mass Killings Database, which is publicly available, counts media reports of incidents in which four or more people are murdered by one person within 24 hours (or within seven days of there are four or more on one day). From 2006 through yesterday, the database includes 535 incidents and 2793 deaths (5.2 deaths per incident). Of those deaths, 1147 , or 41% of the total, were categorized as family murders, almost all of them occurring at home.

Maybe someone who knows more about media and journalism than me can figure out why family mass murder doesn’t have the same news-cycle footprint as public shootings. And I don’t know that shifting that balance would have a positive effect on anything, I just notice it.

Some public mass shootings have obvious “causes,” like the blatant racial hate crimes. In others there is a long search for “motives” and “why.” In any event, the large scale public shootings have a reasonable solution: gun control. Although most family mass murders also involve guns (74%, compared with 79% of the total), it’s less likely that gun control would prevent or mitigate them, because people have lots of opportunity to commit murder at home. In family mass murders, the explanation is usually mundane: Abusive man in jealous rage, with or without a twist such as religious fanaticism or cultlike behavior. “A guy who kills his wife and children and sometimes kills himself is the most common type of mass killing.”

Enoch City

I decided to write this post when I read, “‘Tragedy Upon Tragedy’: January Brings Dozens of Mass Shootings So Far” in the New York Times, which mentions 12 specific mass shootings so far in January, none of them family crimes, even though the Enoch City mass murder — in which Michael Haight killed his wife, five children, and his mother-in-law — was the second-most deadly mass murder this year.

(There was also a murder-suicide in High Point, North Carolina in early January, in which a man killed his wife and three children, then himself. A police lieutenant was quoted as saying, “We may never know why. What goes through the hearts and minds of a person that would do this sometimes dies with them.” Also, there were domestic violence calls to police going back eight years.)

The Enoch City murders remind me that, just like public mass shootings, where the first news is unreliable, the first character assessments of family mass murderers are wrong, too. The first report on the case from the Deseret News featured this piece of crack reporting:

Neighbors told KSL the family was very welcoming and involved in the community, and they did not sense that something like this may occur. Neighbors said they were active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the husband was an insurance agent.

Their other story on the same day dug a little deeper. This was the lede:

It wasn’t that long ago that John Lavalla, of Enoch, met his neighbor Michael Haight. In March, Lavalla moved to the small but rapidly expanding southern Utah community. He was unloading his moving truck when Haight surprised him.

“Do you need help? I’m your new neighbor. My name is Mike,” he said. “Do you have any children?”

Lavalla, the father of a 6-year-old, said yes.

“Oh, I have twins that are six. That’s perfect, there’s no one else on the street who’s their age, they’re all older or younger. So they’ll be best friends,” Haight responded.

And best friends they became. Over the coming months, his daughter would spend hours riding bikes through the neighborhood with the Haight kids. And Lavalla, battling cancer, bonded with the friendly family across the street who would often check in and ask how his chemotherapy was going. Haight was reserved, but didn’t strike anyone as a killer. … “No one ever thought this would happen. And he is just not the type of person you thought could do this,” said Lavalla.

That’s day 1. Amazingly, in that same story was the information that Tausha Haight had just filed for divorce, and that “the court issued a domestic relations injunction saying both parties must not harass or intimidate each other, by any means, including electronically. It also warns against domestic violence or abuse against the other person or a child.” Best friends! “Some residents and those who knew the Haights say they did not see any red flags during the divorce proceedings and the fact that Michael Haight committed the crimes makes the scenario even more shocking.” (I can’t explain the last half of that sentence.)

By day 12 it’s, “Police report from slain Enoch family details allegations of abuse, controlling behavior.” If you were enraged at the complete failure of the police in Uvalde, Texas, to save children in life-threatening danger, I offer for comparison, the police in Enoch City. There, the Desert News reports drily, there were three police calls out to the house because of Michael Haight’s violence, over several years. The quotes from the reports (the full reports aren’t posted) show the police repeatedly downplaying the violence and deflecting responsibility to the teenage daughter.

From one report: “Her father became angry at her and grabbed her by the shoulders. He shook her and her head banged into the wooden piece along the back of the couch. She stated that she was terrified that he was going to hurt her. She stated that she did not suffer any injury from this event. She was mostly scared.”

Another incident: He “allegedly grabbed his daughter ‘around the neck and choked her.'” “She stated that she was very afraid that he was going to keep her from breathing and kill her… I asked her if she actually lost her breath. She stated that she did not. She stated that he did not choke her.” Excellent clarification.

The officer’s conclusion after talking to Michael Haight?

“Later he [Michael] stated that if he had indeed done these things it was not meant to be an assault. He stated that Macie is mouthy and he gets angry at her.” He’d had a “tough year” (his father died and his brother was getting a divorce, too). “I advised Michael that his behavior was very close to assaultive. I advised him that I did not intend to charge him with any crime at this time. I talked to him about the importance of Macie continuing to speak with a therapist. I asked him to not interfere with that. I also advised him that he should continue seeing someone about his anger. I advised him that I would much rather be having this conversation with him instead of taking him to jail.”

In at least one case, an official from the Utah Division of Child and Family Services was also present. The county DA’s office said in a statement that they had only consulted about the case over the phone, and had not reviewed the reports. The statement included this bizarre defense of how seriously they would have taken the case if they had actually considered it, which, they repeat, they did not.

“The Iron County Attorney’s Office takes allegations of child abuse very seriously. When law enforcement is unsure whether criminal charges are appropriate, cases are sent to our office to be formally screened. We review such cases and all associated reports and interviews in depth. Only then do we determine whether sufficient evidence exists to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.”

Of course the police willy-nilly locking people up doesn’t solve family violence, is always done inequitably, and causes many other problems, including for families. However, regardless of what the particular individuals or bureaucracies involved could or should have done, it’s important to bear witness to the fact that the system absolutely failed those innocent children and let them be murdered by the very man they had tried to warn the police about. The commonplace nature of their death to us — the daily consumers of the news in this, our world — is no salve for their terror and suffering.

Religion

Is there a religious aspect to the Enoch City murders? Of course, the (Mormon) Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints does not advocate murdering your family, although they are unclear on whether the murderer goes to heaven, as is discussed by Haley Swenson in Slate. (I don’t get a vote on who goes to heaven in your fairyland, since I don’t believe in heaven, but I vote against mass murderers anyway, because otherwise what’s the point of heaven.) Clearly, “blaming” the murders on the Church would be wrong without evidence beyond the fact that Michael Haight was a devoted and active member of the church. Lots of religious people do horrible things that can’t be laid at the feet of their faiths.

That said, Mormon doctrine is very negative about divorce. Their official website blames divorce specifically on Satan, and says people shouldn’t do it.

The sanctity of marriage and families is taught repeatedly in the scriptures. It has been reaffirmed by modern prophets and apostles. Despite the truths taught about the sanctity of marriage, divorce has become commonplace in the world. Because the family is central to Heavenly Father’s plan for His children, Satan seeks to destroy marriages and families. Because of the poor choices and selfishness of one or both marriage partners, marriages sometimes end in contention, separation, and divorce. If, instead of resorting to divorce, each individual will seek the comfort and well-being of his or her spouse, couples will grow in love and unity.

I’m not an expert on religion, and I acknowledge my crass tendency to read religious writings literally. (Being Jewish [and atheist], I strenuously object to the grotesquely sexist literal content of Jewish religious texts — and the patriarchal practices associated with much of organized Judaism as well.) So I may be way off base in saying that if your church says something (divorce) is the work of Satan, it sounds to me, naïve sociologist, like a justification of extreme measures to stop that thing. This is the next paragraph.

Those who have caused a divorce through their own poor choices can repent and be forgiven. Those whose marriages have failed because of what others have done can receive strength and comfort from the Lord, who promised: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28, 30).

I have no idea how Michael Haight might have read this. If (and I do not know this is true) he assumed the marriage “failed because of what others have done,” and thought God would give him “strength and comfort” and then let him “rest” after he murdered his family and killed himself — then I still don’t think you could blame the murders on their religion. But I would still object to that doctrine, and suggest this is a reasonable time to bring it up.

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