Ellis: Boys Will Have Guns?

Gender plays an important role in gun violence.

by Simon Ellis | 10/17/17 12:30am

On Sunday, Oct. 1, the largest mass shooting in modern American history took place in Las Vegas. The usual questions came immediately to media attention: What was the shooter’s motive? Was this an act of terror? But no one second-guessed a critical part of the story: The perpetrator was a he. Since 1982, 91 mass shootings have occurred with more than four victims, and of those only three were committed by women. Mass shootings in America are a gendered issue, something that we need to acknowledge and question. What aspects of masculinity are contributing to mass shootings — and how can we take concrete steps not only to eliminate tragedies but also to change social attitudes surrounding gun violence?

More than 12,000 people have died as a result of gun violence so far in 2017, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In 2014, Japan had just six gun-related deaths while the United States had more than 33,000. Gun violence is a problem that the United States, alone amongst developed nations, faces, and in solving it we must consider deep reasons, not simply our lenient gun control laws and strict Second Amendment interpretations. One fact looms large: Mass shootings are inextricably male.

The way men and boys are socialized is a key part of any explanation of this phenomenon. Societal norms attempt to require men to be the providers and protectors of their families and their family pride. I, like many, have heard the multiple phrases we use to enforce these gender roles on boys. “Be careful, girls are fragile, so you can’t play too rough” and “boys don’t cry” are statements that represent the ideals perpetuated in Western society. These statements have disastrous effects. According to the American Physiological Association, men are less likely to ask for help than women when suffering from mental health issues. Those issues are exacerbated by the societal pressure that pushes men not to seek physiological help.

The problems of male socialization manifests in crimes other than those related to gun violence. Men make up the vast majority of prison inmates in America. According to the Department of Justice, about 214,000 women were incarcerated in 2013 in American jails and prisons while just over two million men shared the same fate. On the other hand, women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence sexual assault. The consequences of male socialization have been documented to begin at the high school level. In the 2011-2012 school year, on average, approximately 11 percent of high school boys were suspended while only about 5 percent of girls faced the same disciplinary action. These suspensions occur for a range of reasons, but most often have to due with fighting, drug possession or other risky behaviors that lead to the breaking of school policy.

America’s obsession with guns may be a gendered issue, but that hasn’t stopped the National Rifle Association of America from encouraging women to buy and use guns as a solution to the problem, surely a blind and unquestioned approach to the Second Amendment. The NRA ran a series of advertisements on its YouTube channel last year showing women speaking about buying guns and defending themselves. In one of the videos, an actress claims that a woman with a gun is “what real empowerment looks like” and that the NRA is “freedom’s safest place.”

The way to solve issues related to gun violence is not to encourage individuals to buy guns. The implementation of the NRA’s advertisements have ideals that are decidedly un-feminist. A woman will only be safe when she has a gun, thus allowing her to defend herself from men with guns? American gun policy frequently seeks to treat the symptoms of the proliferation of firearms rather than the underlying causes of their now omnipresent threat. Rather than accepting, as the women in the advertisements do, that men have guns and everyone should carry their own gun to protect themselves, why don’t we address the basis of the issue? Men are statistically more violent. We should not simply accept the fact that whenever we are in a public space, we are in danger of being victims of gun violence or a mass shooting. The NRA and its ilk only continue the gendering of crime and mass shootings through current campaigns rather than actually empowering women. Instead of putting the impetus on women to become more violently socialized, we need to put pressure and focus on the way boys are socialized. We also can’t only blame the legislature and organizations like the NRA. They are at fault for perpetuating existing norms that help to cause gun violence.

If the socialization of men and boys and the ideals we, as Americans, hold dear are resulting in tragedies like the Las Vegas massacre, those ideals must change. Our legislation should step up and decide that going to a country music festival should not mean putting your life at risk. Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock said she was “heartbroken” about the Las Vegas incident, yet she has accepted more than $100,000 in NRA campaign donations. It is not just our laws and legislation that needs to change but our values. We should be educating boys and girls in the same ways and socializing them to understand that violence should not be the first outlet for frustration. Otherwise, these sorts of massacres will become commonplace, and that is an outcome that I do not accept.