Commentary Violence

The Elephant in the Room: Why is the Gunman Always Male?

Sheila Bapat

In addition to gun policy reform, gender, and its entanglement with culture, economics, mental health and many other factors, requires serious attention.

As a nation, we are reeling. On Friday, December 14, 20 young children—12 girls, 8 boys—and six female teachers and school administrators were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in one of the most harrowing acts of gun violence in this nation’s history. After a year of some of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history, Newtown’s was among the most sickening in large part because the majority of the victims were young children between five and seven years old. A number of writers have begun to offer policy suggestions to outline, as President Obama called it, “meaningful action” on gun control.

To truly address the problem of which Newtown reminded us in the most horrific way, gender, and its entanglement with culture, poverty, and mental health requires serious attention in addition to gun policy reform. On NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, Shankar Vedantam pointed out common characteristics of gunmen in the most recent gun massacres including Friday’s in Newtown:

“[I]f you look at the series of incidents that have happened in recent years, there are several things that stand out in terms of patterns….the shooters have always been men.”

Why is the gunman always male? After the Aurora, Colorado shooting during the opening of the Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Premiere in July, Feministing ran a piece by Eesha Pandit, Executive Director at Men Stopping Violence. Pandit wrote:

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What we are missing in our collective understanding is the gendered nature of mass homicide…the acknowledgement of ‘male violence’ without conflating it with all different kinds of violence is particularly useful, because it helps us contextualize the violence in our society as a function of patriarchy and sexism.

On its face, the patriarchy and sexism about which Pandit writes seems to be rearing its head here. In this instance, the gunman, Adam Lanza, chose to first murder his mother and then drive to a nearby school where he massacred women and young children. At this time, there is no proof of gender animus as a motive specifically in this event. But the facts—the gender identity of the shooter and the gender identity of the victims— underly why policy solutions should include greater examination of gender, men’s relationship to women and to each other, in addition to advocating greater gun regulation. This event alone, along with domestic violence trends generally, makes clear that male-against-female violence persists and emerges in frightening ways.

Also important, Pandit pointed out that violent behaviors are deeply rooted in economic, health, and cultural factors, and that this context also tends to be underacknowledged in society generally.

“We have to name male violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon—one that occurs in the context of race, class, gender, citizenship, ability, sexuality and so on,” Pandit pointed out. “To name it without interrogating [these intersections] won’t take us far.”

In other words, there are ways in which gender interacts with multiple other phenomena  in manifesting violence. Pandit also points out that “ability” is a factor—mental illness in particular, and its connection to gun violence, requires greater attention. In addition, Richard Florida wrote in the Atlantic that gun deaths are positively correlated with poverty.

Setting aside the horrific massacres of Newtown, Aurora, Columbine and all the others, many acts of violence are not typically shootings en masse: they are perpetrated by men toward other individuals or small groups, and quite often against other men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in most instances, the victims of male violence are actually other males.

The CDC also reports that among youth in grades 9 to 12, 40 percent of young males report having been in a physical fight, while 24 percent of females report having been in a physical fight. There are cultural/economic/gender questions that are relevant to both the massacres and to all violent incidents, and those must also be addressed with rigor and with attention to how they vary.

One of the most intuitive, immediate policy solutions to the gun massacres seems to be restricting access to automatic weapons. There also needs to be heightened focus on untangling gender specifically from all of this. How are we choosing to socialize boys and young men, are we helping them achieve health and wellness, and how can we reform current practices to help prevent massacres like Newtown and smaller-scale acts of violence? Whether we are aware of it or not, we built our gender practices and identities, and we too can reform them.

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