In the past week, there were three mass shootings across the United States: at a festival in Gilroy, California, at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. In each case, the killer was a young man, aged 24 or younger (both the Gilroy and the El Paso shooter were 19 years old).
After tragic events such as these, there is often a rush to figure out why this has happened, and for good reason. If we can determine a cause, perhaps we can put an end to this reign of terror. To date, there have been 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2019 — a little over halfway through the year.
The overwhelming majority of mass shooters are men. Between 1982 and 2019, only 4 mass shootings have been committed by women (which includes one woman who committed the act with a man). The rest — including the most deadly mass shootings in American history — have been carried out by men.
A common explanation for mass shootings offered by politicians and others is that the perpetrator was mentally ill. As an initial matter, it is important to note that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime than to commit one. Moreover, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), women and men have similar rates of mental health conditions. Yet women who struggle with certain conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are more likely to have hyper-vigilance, feel depressed and have trouble feeling emotions, while men are more likely to feel angry and have problems with alcohol or drugs. If women and men experience similar rates of mental illness, why are most mass shootings committed by men?
The difference can be traced back to toxic masculinity: a type of masculinity that encourages strict adherence to gender roles for men, and limits men and boys to expressing their emotions through anger and violence. When we teach boys that the only acceptable outlet for their emotions is through violence, or that the only emotion that they are permitted to show is anger, it engulfs them in toxic masculinity. As they grow and their problems become bigger, they often cannot think of solutions beyond violence and aggression. While toxic masculinity may not be the only reason behind these shootings, it does explain why so many men have decided that the only way to handle their issues (whatever they may be) is by taking a gun to a public place and killing other people. A discussion on mass shootings cannot be complete without an examination of toxic masculinity, as it is the root cause of so many of these acts of terrorism.
There is also a clear link between domestic violence, misogyny and mass shootings. This, too, demonstrates that toxic masculinity is fueling mass shootings. The same culture that teaches boys that violence is the answer is telling them that girls and women are objects to be controlled or conquests to be made. Beyond teaching boys that girls are not equal to them, toxic masculinity fuels a sense of entitlement towards women that too often leads to violence. A recent study of 22 mass shooters found that 86% had a history of domestic abuse, and 32% had a history of stalking and harassment. 50% of these shooters specifically targeted women in their rampages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half (over 55%) of female homicide victims in the United States are killed in connection to intimate partner violence. These statistics demonstrate that there is a significant connection between gender-based violence and mass shootings. We need to make a significant change if we hope to take on this problem — starting with the way that we educate our boys and young men.
At Blackburn Center, we believe that there is hope. We offer a range of training and education programs, including an Exploring Empathy program through local libraries, designed to help children learn more about their emotions, being compassionate, and relating to others in a healthy way. You can also explore our website for tools on how to start the process of helping the boys in your life avoid the trap of toxic masculinity — and help build a healthier and safer future.