Mass Shootings and Toxic Masculinity in America
A horrible tragedy unfolded in Texas where at least 19 children and two adults were killed when a teenage gunman shot them at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, a small, predominantly Latino town in South Texas on May 24, 2022, in which the 18-year-old went classroom to classroom dressed in body armor and carrying two military-style rifles — the latest mass shooting in a country in which such incidents have become common.
The attack at Robb Elementary School was, according to the data, the 137th school shooting to take place in the U.S. in 2022. In 2021, there were 249 school shootings.
According to a new FBI report in 2021, the murder rate has risen by nearly 30 percent, the largest increase on record. There were about 21,500 murders, or 6.5 per 100,000 people.
Guns killed over 45,000 Americans in 2020, the most recent year final data are available — and the worst one on record. That’s 25% more than five years ago, 43% more than 2010. For every killing deemed self-defence by the police, guns are used in 34 homicides and 78 suicides. At this point, there is little question that more guns lead to more dead and wounded Americans — a conclusion ratified by two studies published in March 2018, one in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the other a comprehensive review of thousands of studies from the RAND Corporation.
Stricter gun laws at the national level are more popular among Democrats than Republicans, and major new legislation would likely need votes from at least 10 Republican senators. Many of these senators represent constituencies opposed to gun control.
Despite national polls showing majority support for an assault weapons ban, not one of the 30 states with a Republican-controlled legislature has such a policy.
In the United States, mass shootings lead to looser, not stricter, gun regulations, which in turn put more guns in our homes and on our streets — which results in more injury and death. Republican state legislatures pass significantly more gun laws that loosen restrictions on firearms after mass shootings. In 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a new law that eliminated a requirement for Texans to obtain a license or receive training to carry handguns. This came two years after a 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso.
We’re Looking In the Wrong Places for Answers
Almost predictably political commentators and almost all the media discuss the heart-wrenching event in Texas in terms of gun control legislation, creating schools like fortresses (FOX News), and mental illness of the perpetrator (which has been repeatedly refuted by research). These are symptoms of a much deeper problem facing America: it is a culture of violence since it’s inception, and hegemonic and toxic masculinity are driving forces.
James Densley, of Metropolitan State University, and Hamline University’s Jillian Peterson log such incidents in a database of U.S. mass shootings. It has helped them build a profile of the typical school shooting suspect — some of which appears to apply to the suspect in the latest massacre, such as his age and gender. In general, school shooters overwhelmingly are young white men and tend to be current or former students of the school they attack. And they are “almost always” in a crisis of some sort prior to the incident, as evidenced by changes in their behavior. Suspects are also often inspired by other school shooters, which explain the rapid growth in such attacks in recent years.
Baylor University sociologists Paul Froese and F. Carson Mencken created a “gun empowerment scale” designed to measure how a nationally representative sample of almost 600 owners felt about their weapons. Their study found that people at the highest level of their scale — the ones who felt most emotionally and morally attached to their guns — were 78 percent white and 65 percent male.
“We found that white men who have experienced economic setbacks or worry about their economic futures are the group of owners most attached to their guns,” says Froese. “Those with high attachment felt that having a gun made them a better and more respected member of their communities.”
For these economically insecure, less-religious white men, “the gun is a ubiquitous symbol of power and independence, two things white males are worried about,” says Froese. “Guns, therefore, provide a way to regain their masculinity, which they perceive has been eroded by increasing economic impotency.”
In Froese’s view, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in the lives of these men. When read in the context of other studies, this research describes a population that is struggling to find a new story — one in which they are once again the heroes.
Tony Farrenkopf, a forensic psychologist in Portland, Ore., who has created psychological profiles of mass shooters says that these young shooters “ often feel very powerless. The one way they can feel like they’re somebody, that they’re a man, is to get a gun and kill people.”
“Our culture and media (such as violent movies and video games) only reinforce the notion that manhood is about attaining power, and social and sexual status. Violence is glorified as a way to get that power, he said.
Why is it that 75% of the most recent school shooters, including the 18-year-old in Uvalde, were raised in broken homes without fathers? Indeed, this background is so common among perpetrators that criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi.
Hirschi concluded after the Sandy Hook school shooting that the absence of fathers is one of the “most powerful predictors of crimes.” Boys raised without a fatherly presence are more likely to act impulsively, irrationally, and, yes, violently. They were deprived of the discipline, structure, authoritative role model, and sense of identity that a father is supposed to provide, and they suffered for it.
How the Media Makes the Problem Worse
In the days and weeks following a mass shooting, television news programs saturate audiences with coverage of the tragedy, often focusing on the shooter.
But there’s a problem with this approach: It could be making mass shootings more common. According to a recent study by Michael Jetter and Jay K. Walker published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics intense media coverage of these events may serve to glorify them in the minds of other potential mass shooters, who then seek the same attention by committing similar atrocities.
American culture from its beginnings has worshipped men with guns and using violence to solve problems. Cult heroes in the media and the movies such as John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood were idolized because they were “manly” men who solved problems with violence. They get what they want and women want them. They are looked up to and emulated by other men and society in general.
Yet, the mass murderers such as the one in Texas were not those kind of men. Rather, they were men who felt entitled, and were angry because they felt others were in some way depriving them of what they wanted and needed. And if they weren’t going to get what they wanted, they could get their revenge through violence.
Many of the mass murderers have a history of domestic violence or abuse. And many of them join organizations in the alt-right such as white nationalists who decry feminism and immigrants which affirms their feeling of entitlement.
Some experts and the media still continue to describe the problem of mass murderers in terms of mental illness. Yet, 23 percent of U.S. women have a diagnosable mental illness (compared to only 16.8 percent of men), and they do not go around shooting people.
Similarly, government agencies such as the FBI and Homeland Security have devoted almost all their resources to protecting America against radical Muslim terrorists.
Yet, 62 people in America have been killed in mass shootings by white men with guns in 2019. Number of people in the US killed by radical Muslim terrorists in 2019? Zero.
The American Psychological Associated produced a report by a panel of experts to convey conclusions and recommendations for solutions. Among the observations was: “changing perceptions among males of social norms about behaviors and characteristics associated with masculinity may reduce the prevalence gun violence; prevention of violence occurs along a continuum that begins in early childhood with programs to help parents raise emotionally healthy children and ends with efforts to identify and intervene with troubled individuals who are threatening violence.”
Eric Madfis, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington says that men who commit mass murder tend to feel their masculinity has been diminished in a fundamental way.
Madfis, wrote a study on the common traits of mass murderers, which was published in the journal Men and Masculinities.
“So, there are people who have been rejected by lots of girls, or ignored by friends or by peers ― people who have experienced lots of job losses,” said Madfis. Rather than working toward constructive solutionswhen they feel they have failed , these men turn their rage outward. “It is a recourse; it’s a way for someone to perform [his] masculinity by engaging in this massive act of violence,” Madfis said.
Madfis concluded that mass killers tend to share elements of white entitlement and heterosexual masculinity pressured by anxieties about middle-class instability and downward economic mobility. “Women tend tointernalize blame and frustration, while men tend to externalize it through acts of aggression,” Madfis says.
A common trait among mass killers is that they tend to blame others for their problems. “And part of that relates to masculinity, as well, because men are much more likely to externalize blame in general; they’re much more likely to see other people as causing them problems and to act,” Madfis said.
Alt-right Paramilitary Groups
There’s a clear link between men’s love of guns and the alt-right and paramilitary groups that are proliferating in America.
Angry white men in America, — the rising “alt-right” and paramilitary groups — took many of the most retrograde notions about women from men’s rights activists and worked them into their own hateful, racist, misogynistic spew. Many of them despise women — including white women as much as they hate immigrants and Jewish people.
It’s interesting to note that there’s almost a “uniform” for the alt- right extremists’ groups which clearly project toxic masculinity:muscular men, covered in tattoos, with prominent facial hair, often with shaved heads, and often dressed in military-type clothes and gear and carrying weapons. Virtually all of them are white.
NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben and The Atlantic journalist Megan Garber mention all the “grotesquely masculine” symbols of theCapitol building occupiers on January 6 (most of them white males): “the pelts, the horns, the capes, the exposed chests, thetactical gear.”
Fascist and white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys — an all- male white group — espouses the belief that there’s “a real war on masculinity in this country.”
The correlation between masculinity and homicide goes beyond mass shootings. Almost 90% of suspects arrested for any form of homicide in California in 2018 were male, a disparity that has not changed much over the decades, even as the number of homicides declined. FBI data reflect the same discrepancy nationwide.
It’s worthwhile to consider the media’s role in framing the issue of mass shootings — in the same 2010 study, Kalish and Kimmel noted that only when white boys began to open fire in their schools did psychologists and the media rush to assert that mental illness was at the root of the action something they don’t do if the perpetrator is black or other ethnic minority.
The perpetrators had all been socialized in a culture in which toxic masculinity serves as the primary definition of masculinity. The shooters, in an effort to assert their masculinity in an even more pronounced manner and fashion, often choose to end their display in suicide as a way to assert masculinity and dominance over others in a permanent way — essentially sending the message that they, and only they would have the final word over those who, they felt, stripped them of their masculinity.
Studies have unequivocally shown that toxic and hegemonic masculinity is central to understanding events of murder-suicide like mass shootings. Restricting the solutions to gun violence to gun law legislation while ignoring a root cause for the violence may reduce the shootings but not eliminate them.
America’s Gun Culture
Renowned American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an article, “America as a Gun Culture” in American Heritage Magazine:” The United States is the only modern industrial urban nation that persists in maintaining a gun culture. It is the only industrial nation in which the possession of rifles, shotguns, and handguns is lawfully prevalent among large numbers of its population. It is the only such nation that has been impelled in recent years to agonize at length about its own disposition toward violence and to set up a commission to examine it. The only nation so attached to the supposed “right” to bear arms that its laws abet assassins, professional criminals, berserk murderers, and political terrorists at the expense of the orderly population — and yet it remains, and is apparently determined to remain, the most passive of all the major countries in the matter of gun control.”
“Many otherwise intelligent Americans cling with stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy — without being in the slightest perturbed by the fact that no other democracy in the world observes any such “right” and that in some democracies in which citizens’ rights are rather better protected than in ours, such as England and the Scandinavian countries, our arms control policies would be considered laughable.”
The Influence of the National Rifle Association ( NRA)
Individuals once arming themselves for self-defence — often out of racial fears or a perceived threat to their masculinity — are now frequently claiming to do so in defense of the Constitution and freedom itself. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has played an outsize role in this vigilante reframing by promulgating the myth that gun ownership has always been an individual, constitutional right and oriented toward a nativist vision of self-defence. It rejects the freedom of others as equal to one’s own and views any attempt to support such equality as tyranny. Most importantly, this “individual right” is assumed to grant the individual the power to take life in defense not of law, but of one’s own interests.
As political scientist Matthew J. Lacombe documents in his book Firepower (2021), the NRA has been able to generate zealous devotion in its members by cultivating a collective identity. Key to this has been offering a narrative that clearly identifies enemy out-groups, and which then ceaselessly instills panic among members by portraying these purported enemies as forever on the verge of destroying members and their culture. 2019 was the deadliest year for violent extremism since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, over 80 percent of the fatalities were attributable to white supremacist attacks.
Until the 1970s, the prevailing legal view was that the Second Amendment was a collective right associated with militias and aimed at providing for national defense. Hofstadter noted this in 1970: “The right to bear arms was a collective, not an individual, right, closely linked to the civic need (especially keen in the absence of a sufficient national army) for ‘a well-regulated Militia.’”
At the NRA, Robert J. Dowlut, in 1977 became the NRA’s general counsel and played a monumental role in cultivating an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment. A little-known story about Dowlut is that he was convicted of murdering Anna Marie Yocum, the mother of his then-girlfriend, in 1963. Dowlut also robbed and shot the owner of a pawn shop. He confessed to the shootings and served six years in prison before his conviction was overturned on a technicality. His crimes were not made public until 2014.
Dowlut relentlessly promoted an individualist interpretation — namely, the idea that the Constitution not only protected state-regulated militias, but also the right of private individuals to bear arms. Before 1960 there had never been a law review article endorsing an individualist reading of the Second Amendment. Between 1960 and 1970 there were only three. Between 1970 and 1989, however, twenty-seven articles endorsed the individual-right interpretation — more than half of them written by lawyers employed by or representing the NRA or other gun rights groups. Dowlut authored three of them himself.
Macho Men and Guns
In my book, Macho Men: How Toxic Masculinity Harms Us All and What To Do About It, I have a chapter devoted to the link between toxic masculinity and violence — particularly murder — in America.
In the book, I argue the following: “there are clear indications that toxic masculinity and the American gun culture marked by killings, including mass shootings, are connected.”
I go on further to make these observations:
“It was just 10 years ago that Americans witnessed the tragic loss of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary school. Twenty- six were killed after a man with an assault style weapon embarked on ghastly killing spree at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012, claiming the lives of 20 students and six teachers.
After any mass shooting, Americans hear politicians make the ritualistic call for “thoughts and prayers.” Yet years after the killing of these 20 elementary students and six staff, school shootings continue to frequentlyclaim young lives, including the latest in Texas.
Repeated mass shooting and suicides occuring when troubled boys and men turn to guns are instances far too similar to one another to be a coincidence. These shooters have common factors. They were all males and theshooters were white.
They apparently experienced a life of intense emotional pain. They demonstrated signs of a traumatic life, like severe social isolation, school or job failure or family estrangement. Many have been victims of abuse themselves.
Are symptoms of a deeper public health crisis that Americans are not talking about? Scholarship on massshootings demonstrates a pattern for school shooters, in particular, in which the predominant understanding of masculinity combines with the cultural script of spectacular mass violence.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel found, as described in his book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of An Era, most school suicide-murder shootings after 1990 have been carried out by white boys. Instead of exhibiting resilience or asking for help, some white boys who are bullied, under threat or disrespected turn to aggression and revenge as a toxic salve, using prior accounts of past shootings as a script for their own actsof suicidal mass violence.
This way of imagining manhood amplifies the worst messages American culture offers — that men should notdemonstrate pain and vulnerability or seek help. Instead, a toxic masculinity emerges to put forth the idea thatwhen white men are hurting, they are entitled to act violently against others to cover feelings of vulnerability.
Eric Madfis says that societal influences probably play a larger role, including messages from media, sports, the military, the workplace and our educational system that may link masculinity to expressions of aggression by men. One often-cited example is a macho-heavy ad for Remington’s Bushmaster Rifle. It portrays themilitary assault-style rifle with the bold headline: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” Remington hardly invented the linkage between manhood and sexy-looking military-style weapons. It’s hard-baked into Americanculture and, many would say, hard-wired into male brains.
The link between the taboo on white male vulnerability and toxic white male violence permeates everyday life. Boys are four times as likely as girls to think that everyday aggression, like cutting in line or fighting, is acceptable.
So why are American men so much more prone to gun violence? Experts cite a variety of reasons, from brainchemistry and evolution to how men and boys are socialized, said Jillian Peterson, co-founder of The Violence Project and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University.
But other experts said it really just comes down to what they say is arguably America’s most dangerouscombination: toxic masculinity and gun availability.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said toxic masculinity, the cultural idea that manhood is defined by violence and aggression to maintain power or strength, is at the root of both domestic violence and mass shootings.
The tragedy of the school shooting in Texas, like shootings before it, call for radical but necessary changes in the law, a reinterpretation of the Constitution, but more importantly, societal and cultural changes in what constitutes masculinity and how to raise psychological and emotionally healthy boys in America.