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EPA/Larry W Smith

El Paso: we need to examine the role masculinity plays in mass shootings

The United States is a world leader in mass shootings. In less than 24 hours, two mass shootings by single individuals, have left dozens of people dead. Meanwhile, ongoing gun violence in cities such as Chicago over the same weekend saw seven people shot and killed and 46 wounded.

Much of the attention within the US and globally has now centred on the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. There, a lone white gunman killed 22 people and wounded more than 20 more. It has led to discussions about far-right white nationalism as a form of domestic terrorism. This attention is understandable, given the El Paso perpetrator’s stated anti-Hispanic racism in a written document he posted online. His justification for killing resonates with a series of other racist shootings by white nationalists, including at a church in Charleston and a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

However, while white nationalism can explain the motivation for several mass shootings in the US, it does not underpin numerous others. For example, it does not appear to be a factor in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting in which 58 people were murdered and hundreds more wounded. Nor was white nationalism a factor in the slaughter of 26 children and adults in Sandy Hook in 2012.

Other than the use of a gun, the common denominator linking all such attacks is glaringly obvious and yet worryingly absent from much of our discussion about gun violence. This common denominator applies to all but three of the more than 150 mass shootings in which four or more people in the US were killed in public between 1966 and earlier this year. The perpetrators are not all white nationalists, but they are almost all men.

Feminist scholars have long focused on men’s violence against women, tackling issues such as rape, sexual harassment, date rape, stalking, online abuse, incest, domestic violence and murder. They argue that behaviours associated with masculinity are not necessarily natural, but are learned. This has led to important theorising about the negative effects of “hegemonic masculinity”, which pressures men to adopt a hyper-masculine, heterosexual and anti-feminine gender identity and implies that they are not a real man if they do not. “Toxic masculinity”, meanwhile, encourages men to resort to anger, aggression and violence against women, other men and children – and, indeed, the planet itself.

Wreaths are laid for the victims of the Ohio attack. EPA/David Kohl

After the Columbine High School massacre, feminist writer Gloria Steinem considered the relationship of gender to other identity variables. She argued that mass shootings were a “supremacy crime” committed by men “addicted to power and superiority” and seeking to establish their own dominance.

The desire to establish dominance, particularly over women, is evident in the rise of the “incel” movement, a largely misogynistic online community of heterosexual young men raging against women for their sexless lives. At least two mass killers in recent years identified as incels and some in the community have portrayed the first incel-motivated perpetrator as heroic.

Joan Smith connects men’s histories of domestic violence to terrorist acts, including mass shootings, illustrating that men who abuse their loved ones have fewer qualms about carrying out violence against others.

It’s all too convenient to point to mental illness, or even video games, as the main reasons for mass shootings, particularly when the perpetrators are white men as in the majority of cases. Such an approach obscures the over representation of men in the ranks of mass shooters.

We need a sustained discussion about the intersection of masculinity, whiteness and American gun violence. That would involve a frank discussion about the masculinised nature of American gun culture and wider popular culture. These include notions that part of being a real man involves owning a gun and that an acceptable means for men to respond to perceived grievances in life, whether personal or political or some combination of the two, is through violence.

There are practical steps available. Masculinity should be part of the conversation when it comes to looking at factors that lead to violent extremists. More resources also need to go into encouraging men full of rage to seek help instead of submerging such feelings until they erupt externally. Finally, men need to publicly and explicitly condemn male violence.

In this vein, comments by the governor of California, Gavin Newsom after El Paso and Dayton, linking men to mass shootings and pondering the problematic messages boys are given in the United States, represent a step in the right direction. When any man is taught to value “power, dominance, aggression, over empathy, care and collaboration”, he becomes the deadliest weapon of all.

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