America's Gun Fetish is a Symptom of a Deeper Sickness


Ben Luongo | Society & Culture | Commentary | May 24th, 2018



The tragic shooting that took place at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in February breathed new life into America's gun debate. Surviving students confronted political leaders about gun violence during a CNN town-hall meeting, President Trump invited victims to the White House for a "listening session," and March for Our Lives events spread across the country demanding a change in U.S. gun laws.

Unfortunately, none of this has led to any real policy changes, and we continues to debate our gun laws after yet another shooting at Santa Fe High School took the lives of 10 students and inured 13 others. There have already been 22 school shootings in 2018 , and the number of students and teachers killed by guns at school has exceeded the number of active-duty military deaths this year.

Other governments around the world have successfully lowered their gun violence by taking proactive steps to restrict access to firearms. However, America's conservative legislators in power continue to peddle the same tired arguments against changing America's gun laws. The most common attempt for gun advocates to frame the debate in their favor is to focus on mental health instead of gun control. For instance, the only specific solution Texas governor Gregg Abbott offered in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting was to improve mental health resources. Representative Randy Weber, who represents the Texas district the shooting took place in, also emphasized to reporters the importance of mental health despite the fact that he was asked a question about gun control. President Trump's televised response to the shooting on Friday mentioned nothing about gun control, but his speech two weeks earlier to the NRA conference focused primarily on mental health .

Conservative legislators argued the same points after the Parkland shooting. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded to the high school shooting saying "As you know mental health is often a big problem underlying these tragedies […] We want to make sure that if someone is in the mental health system that they do not get a gun if they should not have a gun." President Trump's first responded with a tweet stating that: "So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!" Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee, then-CEO of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre blamed America's mental health system as one of the major problems behind gun violence.

To be absolutely honest, the attempt to frame the debate as a mental health problem is a conservative tactic meant to deflect attention from sincere conversations about gun regulations. The relationship between gun violence and mental health is, nonetheless, a concern on the minds of the majority of Americans. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll , 77% of the respondents say that the Parkland shooting could have been prevented with more effective healthcare screening, where only 58% of those respondent agreed that gun control could have prevented the shooting.

America's concern with mental health and violence is understandable, but it is the wrong way to think about America's unique gun problem. The simple fact is that mental health is not a predictor of gun violence or mass shootings. Mental illness only explains 14.8% of mass-shooting (as defined by a shooter killing four or more people). Mental illness becomes even less important when considering that it constitutes only one percent of all gun related homicides . In fact, only three to five percent of violent crimes are tied to serious mental health issues. The narrative that shooters suffer from a mental illness only stigmatizes those who do suffer from legitimate mental or emotional health issues who are more likely to be the victims of such crimes rather than the offender.

If we want to be honest about what all of the shooters have in common then we need to have serious conversations about gender and America's culture of toxic masculinity. The grand majority of shooters are men , most of them white. Out of the 94 mass shootings in America since 1984, 92 of them were committed by men (that's 98% of mass shootings). Men actually dominate the statistics on violent crime in whole. In fact, 90% of murders are committed by men . In general, gender is more effective predictor of gun violence than mental health is.

In no way does this suggest that men are inherently more violent than women. It may be tempting to interpret these numbers as indicative of real biological differences. However, modern psychology shows how men and women are much more alike than they are different and any real behavioral differences between the two have more to do with society than biology. If you want to understand why violence and antisocial behavior occurs along gender lines, then you have to consider the cultural messages that construct male and female gender roles. Specifically, America's gun epidemic reflects the social standards of masculinity that men are expected to meet.

In reality, America is still very much a patriarchal society. Men exercise more power than women in economics, politics, and culture. Economically, men are likely to be paid more than women for doing the same work. Men also make more money strait out of college despite the fact that women outperform men in college and graduate school . Politically, men control just over 80% of Congressional seats despite constituting only 50% of the population. As a result, women's health and rights issues are never fully represented appropriately in legislation. Culturally speaking, men dominate writing and directing positions in movies and TV. Woman only constitute 10% of the writers and directors of 2017's top 100 grossing movies. As a result, women's issues barely get highlighted in our public discussions. Just consider how long it took the #MeToo campaign to highlight systemic sexual abuse in Hollywood.

Indeed, our society sends messages to both men and women as to what we value and who should exercise power. Male politicians draft legislation that fails to address women's issues while making it easier to legally obtain a gun. Male writers and directors create the movies that place women in subordinate roles while celebrating the heroic use of male violence to save the day. Male employers manage the workplace where women still suffer from vocational discrimination and sexual harassment while men are more likely to enjoy economic success.

By all standards, this is a patriarchal society, and woman have to cope with the masculine structures working against them. As a result, women are more likely to suffer from mental and emotional distress , such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and low self-esteem. In fact, Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression . Despite the fact that women are more likely than men to suffer from these condition, it doesn't lead women to gun violence. Again, women constitute less than two percent of mass shootings. If mental health was a predictor of gun violence, then women would make up a larger percentage of violent gun offenders.

Instead, women are more likely to be the victims of gun violence committed by men. More than half of the mass shootings are situations of domestic violence and at least four out of five gun owners are men . The presence of a gun in a violent domestic relationship increases the woman's chance of being shot fivefold . In fact, 4.5 million women report that an intimate partner had threatened them with a gun at some point in their life. Regarding domestic violence in general, woman are the victims of domestic violence in 85% of the cases.

The gross amount of violence that men direct towards women, whether its gun violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault and rape, all reveals how men have internalized cultural messages of male superiority. The term used for this is 'toxic masculinity' which refers to the endorsement of stereotypical roles of male dominance, misogyny, and aggression. Research demonstrates the role that these cultural expectations play in male violence and coercion, especially when one's masculine identity comes under threat.

This is an important point to make because it illustrates how the patriarchy isn't just bad for women, it's bad for men too. Men are barraged daily with messages from the media, the military, professional sports, and the business sector that tell them how to be masculine. Such messages frame masculinity in terms of economics success, social power, physical strength, etc. This reveals the common theme behind the shooters. Most of the mass shooters have experienced what they see as threats to their masculinity - either they struggled as children to fit in or they had trouble meeting the social expectations of adulthood. Failing to meet these expectations, American shooters respond in ways meant to reaffirm their masculinity. Before they were known for their mass shooting, the grand majority of these shooters have all exhibited aggression towards women.

Omar Matteen, the shooter of the Pulse night club who killed 50 and injured 53, has a history of beating his wife .

Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three and injured nine at the Colorado Spring Planned Parenthood shooting, has a history of violence towards woman , including cases of domestic abuse against his two x-wives and a rape case in 1992.

Elliot Rodger, who killed six people at the Isle Vista Killings, uploaded a disturbing video where he said, "I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me but I will punish you all for it …You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male"

Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Shooter, wrote a document where he disparaged women for being inherently selfish .

Dyllan Roof, the Charleston Church shooter, told his black victims that "you rape our women and you're taking over our country." Many sociologists have used the term benevolent sexism to explain his attitudes towards women

Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter behind the Virginia Tech shooting, had police called on him for stalking and harassing women .

Stephen Paddock, responsible for the concert shooting in Las Vegas, was known for regularly and public abusing his girlfriend , and paid prostitutes thousands of dollars for them to satisfy his rape fantasies .

Nikolas Cruz, the shooter behind the Parkland high school shooting, was abusive towards his girlfriend and got into a fight with her new boyfriend. He was also accused of stalking a female student . A friend said that he had to cease being friends with him after he would threaten his female friends.

The most recent shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, also had a history of sexually aggressive behavior. Reports are now emerging of him harassing female students that he was interested in . Shana Fisher had to publicly tell him in class that she would not go out with him - he later killed her in the shooting. Other reports are coming out of him being picked on and emasculated by both his football teammates and coaches.

Of course America's gun problem is complex and can't be reduced to a single problem. Indeed the sheer amount of guns, as well the ease of obtaining them, is just as much of a problem as anything else. In fact, the scientific research is clear that more guns leads to more gun deaths (some of the peer-reviewed research can be seen here , here , here , and here ).

However, we must also ask where America's gun fetish comes from in the first place. The only way to makes sense of this is to understand how guns fulfill the desire to satisfy social expectations of masculinity. Shedding light on these gendered ways of thinking reveals why politicians and the media are willing to emasculate the shooters by calling them cowards or crazy and, thus, able to shift the debate to mental health. The bottom line is that we need to stop blaming mental health - the real sickness is our culture of toxic masculinity.


Ben Luongo is a doctoral candidate at University of South Florida's School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies where he teaches courses in international human rights and global political economy. Previously, he worked as a campaign organizer and directed several campaigns for groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Save the Children. His articles have appeared in the Foreign Policy Journal, Foreign Policy in Focus, International Policy Digest, New Politics, and the Hampton Institute.