Number of mass killings and victims killed this year compared with previous years. Graph via USA Today.

Grim reports of mass shootings in our country have dominated many news cycles this year. But you may not have heard about the one in Utah in which seven people were killed and the killer shot himself.

There’s a reason for this. The shootings which make headlines and lead national news shows are those which take place in public settings — a doctor’s office in Atlanta, a bank in Nashville or an outlet mall in a Dallas suburb. The Utah shooting happened early in January in a private home in a small rural community.

“I kept asking for help and you wouldn’t listen. I would rather rot in hell than put up with another day of this manipulation and control over me,” wrote Michael Haight, 42, who shot his wife, Tausha, his mother-in-law who had recently moved in because of worries for her daughter’s safety, and his five children before killing himself. From all accounts, it was his wife who was the victim of manipulation and control before the shootings, not Haight.

The Haight murders aren’t even included in Wikipedia’s list of this year’s mass shootings, although the more authoritative Gun Violence Archive includes them in its tally. Incidents in which four or more people are killed in addition to the shooter take place twice as often in private as they do in public, but get much less notice. This USA Today article, from which the above graph is taken, paints a grim picture.

Whenever there’s a mass shooting in some public place we hear that old debate over whether the problem is guns or mental health. We seldom consider that issue in the context of mass shootings which take place in the privacy of people’s homes. This case is an example of how this complicated question can become even more difficult when the murder occurs behind closed doors

The family of Tausha Haight and her mother, Gail Earl, released a statement after the shootings claiming that guns that the two women might have used to defend themselves were “purposely removed” by Michael Haight before the shootings.

“This is the type of loss that will continue to occur in families, communities and this nation when protective arms are no longer accessible,” the statement said.

There’s no reason to believe the Earl family would have defended “protective arms” in their hour of grief if they didn’t deeply believe that guns aren’t the reason for their loss. But the Earls and their neighbors might also be reluctant to embrace Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s view, which he offered on Fox after recent shootings in Allen, Texas.

“The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue,” Abbott said.

For some, “mental health” conveys the idea of a scientific approach to dealing with emotional conflicts. But what does it mean to devoutly religious families like the Earls and the Haights? And how do you “address” this issue, when it takes place within a family?

Investigators for the Utah Department of Family and Children’s Services visited the Haight residence several times after receiving reports Haight was acting violently, the first time in 2020 and the last only weeks before the murders. They never brought charges against Haight, and after an incident last December, Tausha Haight asked the investigators not to interview Haight until she had spoken with him about getting a divorce.

Despite these warnings, Haight was regarded by some, even after the murders, as a religious man who cared deeply for his family.

“I’m grateful for his example of Christlike love and service, his life and his friendship,” one of his relatives wrote on an online obituary page which has since been taken down.

 It may not resolve the question of whether the government should regulate guns or beef up mental health services, but framing that question in the context of mass murder within a family underlines how inadequate simplistic solutions are. Often, after a shooting at a school or a nightclub, we hear calls for more armed security. No one has suggested putting a cop with a gun in every home, but that, unfortunately, is where the problem starts.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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