There’s a lot being said about mass shootings these days. A lot of anger and despair at yet another senseless killing. So far in 2022, we’ve had 214 mass shootings in the US — more shootings than the number of days of this year.
We all know the numbers — they’re astronomical. And while the US criticizes the human rights records of many other countries, this country is among the worst in terms of gun violence. We’re not as civilized as we claim to be. Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed in a gun homicide than people in other high-income countries.
America loves its guns. We’ve got more guns than people, in fact. When it comes to civilian-owned guns, the figure is 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. Excessive?
What’s worse, gun violence kills more women and children. Since 2020, guns have been the leading cause of death for American children and teens.
Not disease. Not road accidents. Guns. A man-made problem. Quite literally, man-made.
Because men are overwhelmingly more violent than women.
Not all men! I hear you say.
There are some women who are violent! I hear you say.
Yes, sure. Some. But saying so, while politically correct, is statistically incorrect. In fact, women who murder often do so to defend themselves from abusive men.
I’m writing this because I want to think about the link between men who perpetrate mass violence and men who perpetrate violence against women.
Read Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear if you need a reminder of the overwhelming reality of violence in our lives. Yes — all of us. Here’s what he says about women to bring the point home:
In (sad) fact, if a full jumbo jet crashed into a mountain killing everyone on board, and if that happened every month, month in and month out, the number of people killed still wouldn’t equal the number of women murdered by their husbands and boyfriends each year.
There’s a connection between violence and sexism — it’s the space where I live, unfortunately. And we have ample evidence of this — trust me, I’m not making it up. I wish it wasn’t so. But I wonder if we’re paying enough attention to it?
Between 2015–2019, more than 11,000 women in the US were killed with a gun. Every month, an average of 57 women are killed with a firearm by an intimate partner. This — the deliberate murder of women — is called femicide. It’s not a word we often hear in the US. Our failure to recognize and use this term means that this hate crime too often goes uncounted. What we don’t measure, we don’t see, as they say. What we don’t see, we don’t act upon. So — femicides continue, without adequate prevention, protection, and policy responses.
There are common personality traits to mass shooters — a profile and a pattern that emerges all too clearly. The shooter is likely to have experienced early trauma, often in the form of bullying, which builds into despair and isolation. Rage and suicidal thoughts are part of this pattern.
And another thing, routinely evidenced but almost always ignored: patriarchal structures that breed toxic masculinity.
Here, unfortunately, is the root of the problem. Take patriarchal values, add notions of masculinity that dictate that men must be tough (and other heteronormative ideals), and voilà! a dangerous ideology of “honor” built from the need to cover up vulnerability through violence.
So it comes as no surprise that mass shooters tend to be men. And these are men who tend to also hate women.
In fact, sociologist Michael Kimmel found most school suicide-murder shootings after 1990 in the US have been carried out by young white men. Studies on school shootings in particular have found a pattern where this imagined manhood “cultural script” becomes a blueprint for perpetrators to regain so-called respectable masculinity.
There is another common characteristic to these mass shooters. Most have a history of domestic violence fueled by misogyny.
There’s research for this. Those who commit mass shootings also commit violence against women. In an analysis of 749 mass shootings between 2014 and 2019, “60% were either domestic violence attacks or committed by men with histories of domestic violence.”
Mass shooters suffer from “aggrieved entitlement”, what Kimmel describes as a fear of having their rightful place — as men — challenged.
Hegemonic masculinity has taught them they have this “rightful place” simply because they are male, or white, or straight, or able-bodied, and so on. The dominant cultural structure — the patriarchy — teaches boys that their “rightful place” is above women, people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Above everyone, in fact.
Jackson Katz speaks well to this. He works at the intersection of gender, race, and violence and is a pioneer in promoting equality and preventing violence against women. Dr. Katz’s 2006 film, Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, draws an explicit link between toxic masculinity and mass shootings.
Because, well, the link is so incredibly explicit! Violent masculinity is a cultural norm, he explains. And the media certainly bears responsibility for the normalizing of this violence. We just don’t see enough of the alternative.
Here’s more academic backing on the link between sexism and violence. Research finds men that adhere to or endorse rigid codes of masculinity and honor are more prone to violence including domestic violence, political violence, violent extremism, and self-harm. Such ideations are also associated with depression and suicide. Other studies find that individuals who reject gender equality are more likely to display intolerance towards women, other nationalities, minorities, and religious groups. They are also more likely to be rapists.
Well, damn, I hear you (and me) say. What to do about this mess?
This “mess” is a public health crisis. Undiagnosed mental illness, lack of social connection, and entrenched toxic masculinity need to be part of the conversation. The perpetrators are troubled people, but I don’t accept the blanket “mental health” excuse — because there are many, many people around the world with mental health issues (many of whom are women), and they do not address their health concerns with guns. Mental illness may play a role, but too often the perpetrators are angry, resentful, entitled misogynists. Ouf.
So, let’s deal with the gun problem. The US is one of only three countries in the world that gives anyone the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. More guns, more violence. Existing gun control measures aren’t enough. What we have enough of is pushback, paralysis, inaction, excuses.
In some states, it’s harder to register to vote or get a puppy than it is to buy a gun. And let’s not even talk about women’s rights to their bodies. It’s easier to get a gun than make your own healthcare decisions.
Let’s also talk about what guns do to women. Firearms are used more than any other weapon in instances of intimate partner violence.
So obviously we need to disarm domestic abusers. Abused women are 500% more likely to be killed by their abuser if he owns a firearm. Five-hundred-percent.
In principle, abusers are prohibited through background checks, but (and there’s always a but…) there’s a loophole for people in dating relationships called the “boyfriend loophole” (meaning: not married, not cohabitating, not co-parenting). In most states, dating relationships don’t “count” when it comes to buying a gun. And most of the abuse happens in those relationships.
But also (another, even greater but…) federal law does not require a background check to be performed before every sale of a gun, including sales by unlicensed, private sellers. This allows people who fail a firearm background check due to their domestic violence record to turn to private sellers to access guns. Where there’s a will… there’s a gun!?
Let’s also tackle toxic masculinity, normalizing other — healthy — ways to be a man. Online hate speech and platforms that breed misogynist and racist rhetoric increasingly translate into dangerous action in real life.
The media has a major role to play here, but this violent masculinity is present in our everyday lives through families, friends, social networks, college campuses… kinda everywhere. A good place to start is the 2015 film The Mask You Live In, helping — hoping! — to reform the conversation around healthy masculinity.
Finally, there are other ways to take action. We need to close the gender wage gap so survivors can more easily leave abusive relationships.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) should be preserved — and expanded.
What is VAWA, I hear you say? Herein lies the problem. We just don’t have enough information about this act, what it does, and how it might protect us. The VAWA is critical in giving protection to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and other forms of violence against women. It also provides funding for training and response programs.
So — what’s the takeaway here? We’ve got a gun problem. And we’ve got a violence against women problem. And we need to see the link between the two, so we can maybe, eventually, perhaps, hopefully do something about it.