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By Scott Weiner
Gun culture alone cannot explain mass shootings in America. If simply having guns really meant having more mass civilian gun attacks, Israel is one country that ought to see frequent such attacks. In reality, mass civilian gun attacks by and against Israeli civilians are rare.
The difference between Israel and the United States is not how easy it is to get a gun— but
rather what guns mean to the people who use them. In Israel, guns symbolize the power and persistence of the collective Jewish nation. In the United States, however, guns symbolize the manhood of the individual. To own and use a gun is to embody the traits of the ideal American male: capable, self-sufficient, and strong.
While the response to last week’s horrific mass shooting attack in Las Vegas has focused on gun control and mental health, a gender politics approach offers a more effective solution. Breaking the pattern of ever-deadlier mass gun attacks in America will require fixing our broken discourses of masculinity and guns.
Why mostly men commit mass violence in the U.S.
Both men and women are capable of committing mass violence and have access to guns in
America. The National Rifle Association has an entire campaign for engaging women gun
owners. However, it is mostly men who commit mass violence in the United States.
The reason has nothing to do with an inherent male impulse toward violence. Rather, scholars who study political violence have found that many men who commit political violence feel that their masculinity has been challenged or violated. Committing mass violence, for these men, becomes a means of regaining a sense of power and masculine autonomy.
In 2012, Maleeha Azlam found that members of terrorist groups see political violence as a
“significant tool for regaining self-worth and masculine efficacy.” Tanya Narozhna and W. Andy Knight agreed in 2016 that male “resentment and desire for vengeance against their feminized position” originates partially in “emasculated masculinities.” In other words, men who commit mass violence often feel they have been disempowered or “feminized.”
Recent evidence-based scholarship bolsters these claims. As Nancy Leong points out, many mass shooters in America have a history of domestic violence against women. This linkage suggests that men who are more susceptible to feeling their masculinity has been challenged may pose a higher risk of committing mass violence.
America’s masculine ideal threatened
Despite this linkage, few policy interventions address the gender aspect of gun violence. Mental health interventions are likely to have limited effect on the extent of mass shootings since mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator of a violent crime. Gun control measures may help in certain instances, but their effectiveness is hard to assess since it relies on tracking non-events.
The problem is that mental illness and the wide availability of guns in America are not the cause of mass gun violence – at least not directly. Rather, they are symptoms of an America masculine ideal that sets impossible and ever-shifting standards of confidence and dominance, spurns any semblance of self-doubt, and fails to disentangle self-empowerment with the disempowerment of others. Such challenges do not absolve the perpetrators of responsibility for their heinous crimes, especially given that most men handle the same challenges without resorting to mass violence. However, they do offer opportunities for policy interventions that can reduce the chance of mass violence.
With a choice between an impossible ideal or perpetual feeling of inadequacy, some men may suffer mental illness. For other men, owning a gun offers a solution to the problem of an impossible masculine ideal. Regardless of who he is, the gun may offer proof that its owner is a man of autonomy, power, and self-confidence.
Not all gun owning men are motivated by a secret lack of self-confidence. However, certain men susceptible to the masculine ideal may use guns as a placeholder for genuine self-confidence. These men pose a danger to society in that they see the life and death power of a gun as a means to self-empowerment rather than a supplement to a genuine sense of self.
Reframing masculinity in America
An effective policy intervention to prevent mass shootings must target men susceptible to the masculine ideal by incorporating gender as one of its elements. Such an intervention would encourage local leaders and role models to reframe masculinity in America by communicating three messages.
First, mass violence is not a sign of masculine strength, but of un-masculine weakness and
cowardice. If a man feels emasculated, mowing down innocent people with an automatic
weapon will not help him regain masculinity.
Second, masculine strength and respect comes from empowering oneself, not disempowering others. Masculine leadership comes from empowering oneself through empowering others.
Finally, true masculinity means being true to oneself, not chasing an ever-shifting and
impossible masculine ideal.
The spate of mass gun violence in the United States is a national emergency that requires swift and effective policy solutions. Masculinities and gender politics offer a way forward that is practical, non-partisan, and potentially life-saving. Mass gun violence has forced Americans to reassess who we are as a nation. If we believe that mass violence should not compromise our freedoms, we must act swiftly to channel male feelings of inadequacy into confidence, disempowerment into leadership, and violence into true strength.
Scott Weiner is an adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University and a member of WIIS.