Why Won’t We Talk About Violence and Masculinity in America?

As I listened along with the rest of the world to the unfolding horror of what transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was struck by the persistent lack of commentary and analysis discussing the fact that mass shooters are almost all angry, male and white. What will it take for us to have widespread, open, public dialogue about gender and violence in this country? About masculinity and identity? These are among the “hard questions” we’re inclined to ignore. Instead, as I listened to the radio and watched the TV, I heard media commentators repeatedly explain how rare this scenario is. How this community didn’t have a “crime problem.” About the psychological make-up of mass shooters. Law enforcement officers are looking for a motive. And people are asking, again, “Why did this happen?”

This is the wrong question. Mass murderers are an extreme symptom of a common, everyday problem. Yes, the risk of being terrorized by a lone, mass murderer is slim. But everyday people live with fear and terror in their homes. There is, sadly, nothing unique about men with guns in this country killing people every day. In the case of mass murders, the extreme symptom of this disaster, the question is, “Why did another angry, young, white man act this way and kill these people?”

This tragedy happened and will continue to happen because too many guns are readily available in a culture that is optimized for their tragic use, most often by unstable boys brought up to define themselves as men through violence, and taught from birth to expect control. Men with cultural entitlements to and expectations of power and privilege. Expectations, when not met and combined with illness, loss, depression and more, explode into uncounted tragedies every day. De-stigmatizing mental illness and regulating guns will of course help, but will be insufficient without inclusion of this dimension of the problem. In the case of Adam Lanza, yes, he had a mental health issue and had access to guns. But, unlike others with illness and access, he experienced the culture in a way that shifted his propensity into violent actuality.

Lanza’s mother’s guns, all properly licensed, were among the 270 million guns that can be found in the U.S. today. He was denied a gun in a local gun store earlier in the week because he didn’t want to wait the required two weeks. Our exceptional country ranks No. 1 in the world in guns/per capita, with 88 guns/100 people–far exceeding the second on the list, Serbia, at 58.2/100. There are countries similarly armed, but not similarly violent. As Ezra Klein pointed out in The Washington Post on Friday, “Switzerland and Israel have rates of homicide that are low despite rates of home firearm ownership that are at least as high as those in the United States.” Of the 25 worst mass shootings of the past 50 years, 15 took place here. It’s a lie to say these events are rare.

On Friday, after killing his mother (which is, after all, domestic violence) the shooter walked into the safe place that was a school and killed 20 boys and girls and six women. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in psychology to wonder about the significance of a man who kills his mother then goes into a school, where women overwhelmingly have control and nurture, and kills small children before they grow up. It is an unfathomable act. I mean no disrespect or lack of sympathy when I say, however, that in the next 24 hours at least three women in the U.S. will die at the hands of violent men. According to the Children’s Defense Fund [PDF], during the same 24 hours up to eight children will die from gunshot wounds in this country. Writes Bill Weird for ABC News: “Among the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, 80 percent of all gun deaths are American deaths and 87 percent of all kids killed by guns are American kids.” This is 42.7 times greater than the rate for all the other nations combined.

Lanza was one man among many. Although more men die of gun violence than women, the fact is, that gun deaths are an overwhelmingly male-perpetrated crime–whether the victims are male or female. And, I know, even though this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre and six years since the Amish school shooting, most mass shooters do not set out to kill by sex. They do, as with single homicides, own guns and kill as a sex. A 2011 Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of American men own guns (compared to 23 percent of women). And, as we learned last month when Kassandra Perkins was shot and killed by Jovan Belcher, 91 percent of domestic murders are committed by men and 88 percent of these murders involve guns.  In less than 10 days, the number of  women and children killed will exceed the number of people–children and women and Lanza himself–lost on Friday. The same culture that results in so many unplanned, domestic, gun-enabled murders–part of 15,000 single victim homicides a year–is the one that produces mass killers like Lanza.

Mother Jones was forced to update it’s Guide to Mass Shootings In America which, earlier in the year, documented the 62 cases of mass shootings involving guns in the U.S. since 1982. Of these, 11 have been in schools. Young, white men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of mass shootings. Among major mass murderers during the last century, only one of the shooters was a woman (see comments, below). White boys and men are not biologically or genetically predisposed to be homicidal mass murders or domestic abusers. However, violence is part of how American masculinity is defined. And guns are part of that violence.

The ad for the gun that the Sandy Hook shooter used runs with a the tagline: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” Young white men have entitlements and privileges that, when combined with disappointment, illness, loss and soul-strippingly unhealthy and common glorification of violence, can lead to tragedy. The only place I heard this discussed this weekend was on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, when Salon’s David Sirota  pointed out that white men are really the only group in America that is “not allowed to be profiled.” We need more white men like David Sirota and Chris Hayes, who disproportionately make up our media experts and political leaders, to step up and talk openly about exactly this. About how ideas about whiteness and maleness are not only our unquestioned norms, but are imbued with an innocence and authority that makes it almost impossible to critically talk about them in terms of a pattern of horrific events like Sandy Hook.


In 2010, Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, in a paper called “Suicide by Mass Murder” gave a name to this phenomenon: “aggrieved entitlement.” In their paper they describe a “culture of hegemonic masculinity in the US”–one that creates a “sense of aggrieved entitlement conducive to violence.” For young men, especially white men, anger and violence are privileges which others cannot lay claim to and are definitively punished for exercising. Our industrialized prison system is massively, disproportionately, overflowing with young black men. And, whereas men who kill their intimate partners are sentenced, on average, to between two and six years, women who kill their spouses are sentenced, on average, to 15 years.”Getting” to be angry and violent isn’t an equal opportunity. Neither is admitting to mental illness, an area we portray as almost exclusively the reserve of girls and women.

It’s not racist or sexist to suggest that white men are struggling with a loss of power in this country. I’m not demonizing white men, many if not most of whom probably don’t feel powerful and in control. But the fact remains that in this country white men have long ruled–in public and private life. They continue to dominate government and media even as the nature of families and private life has evolved over time. No one likes to lose power. Losing power is hard and unpleasant, frightening and disorienting.

But distributing power equitably is  important. It’s a change we can seek to understand, openly discuss and facilitate, or we can ignore and exacerbate harm.

This violence is a public health crises. Other countries understand the vital importance to society of understanding gender constructions, but ours is mind-numbingly resistant. We really, really need to do this if we hope to understand how to stem this hemorrhaging of life. Pretending that hyper-gendered cultural pressures and entitlements that are part of boys becoming “real man” aren’t critically significant to these mass shootings, and to the everyday gun deaths in this country, is the national crime.

Photo via Flickr user Gideon Tsang licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


Soraya Chemaly writes about the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She has appeared as a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Sirius XM progressive radio, and is a frequent HuffPost Live Panelist.