There have been at least 70 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982. If Americans think such shootings are more common now, it’s because they are. Nearly half of the 70 mass shootings have happened since 2006.
What are the reasons? Our news media respond with a number of possibilities: the easy availability of guns in the U.S.; influential movies, television shows, and video games; mental illness, bad parenting – these are the usual suspects.
Jackson Katz, an educator, author, and filmmaker (of Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2), sees another major factor. The least talked about commonality in all of the shootings is the one so obvious most of us miss it: nearly all of the mass murderers are men.
Imagine if women were responsible for nearly every mass shooting in the United States for more than three decades. What would psychologists, pundits, and other talking heads be saying?
“If a woman were the shooter,” Katz says, “you can bet there would be all sorts of commentary about shifting cultural notions of femininity and how they might have contributed to her act, such as discussions in recent years about girl gang violence.”
Yet, a woman is responsible for only one of the 70 mass shootings. The lone woman was a former post office employee who killed 8, including herself, in 2006. Every other mass shooting had a man (or men) behind the trigger.
“Because men represent the dominant gender, their gender is rendered invisible in the discourse about violence,” Katz says. In fact, a dominant masculinity is the norm in our mainstream mass media. Dramatic content is often about the performance of heroic, powerful masculinity (e.g., many action films, digital games, and sports). Humorous content is often when that standard of masculinity is in question (e.g., a man trying to cook, clean, or take care of a child). The same goes for the advertising that supports the content. So many automobile, beer, shaving, and food commercials sell products that offer men a chance to maintain or regain their dominance.
Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, sociologists at State University of New York at Stonybrook, analyzed the problem of mass shootings that usually end in suicide. They found that males and females have similar rates of suicide attempts. “Feeling aggrieved, wronged by the world – these are typical adolescent feelings, common to many boys and girls.”
Yet here is where the similarities end. Female suicide behaviors are more likely to be a cry for help. Male suicide behaviors, informed by social norms of masculinity, often result in a different outcome – “aggrieved entitlement.” Kalish and Kimmel define this as “a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.” Retaliation, which is acceptable in lesser forms (consider all of the cultural narratives in which the weak or aggrieved character finally gets his revenge), becomes horrifying when combined with the immediacy and lethal force of assault firearms.
Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista, California shooter in 2014, documented his thinking on YouTube video titled “Retribution” before gunning down university students:
Tomorrow is the day of retribution, the day in which I will have my revenge… You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.
There is some evidence the gun industry understands the sense of masculine entitlement, but uses that knowledge to sell guns, not to consider how they might be misused. A marketing campaign begun in 2010 for Bushmaster .223-calibre semiautomatic rifle showed an image of the rifle with the large tag line: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” The Bushmaster was the same civilian assault rifle used by Adam Lanza, who massacred 28 people in 2012, most of them children at the Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut.
How does America find a solution to this? Jackson Katz argues that gender should be a central part of our discussion of mass shootings.
“Talk about masculinity,” he says. “It means looking carefully at how our culture defines manhood, how boys are socialized, and how pressure to stay in the ‘man box’ not only constrains boys’ and men’s emotional and relational development, but also their range of choices when faced with life crises.”