George Lundskow, professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan
Another mass shooting in the United States. This time, a 21-year-old male opened fire on 22 March at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, around 14:30 local time, killing ten people. This was the seventh mass shooting in seven days, and there had been four more before that since 1 January 2021.
On 24 March, two days after Boulder, a man thwarted another apparent supermarket mass shooting in suburban Atlanta when he heard someone loading guns in a bathroom stall. Police intercepted the immanent perpetrator as he exited the bathroom. Although not a purposeful mass shooting, random gunfire killed two people and injured eight in two separate incidents on March 26th in Virginia Beach, VA when spring break parties apparently got out of hand.
The details are different, but the story is the same. A man opens fire and kills a number of people. The response from public officials is always the same: our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. The response from local law enforcement is always the same: they are still searching for a motive. They cast about, desperately searching for something to suggest that this is an isolated incident: the outcome of mental illness, substance abuse, depression, autism, some kind of extremist political affiliation, or even heavy metal and demonic possession. These things, almost never present, are only coincidental, not causal.
To understand mass shootings in the United States, we need to explain the one common factor rather than the individual idiosyncrasies. The primary question is: Why are the shooters almost always male?
Since 1966, men have committed 97.4% of all mass shootings. It’s not just mass shooters. Men shoot people in road rage, robberies, and domestic violence. Using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, I calculated that men committed 91.3% of all murders in 2019 (the most recent year available) and 81.2% of all violent crimes, using the Bureau of Justice Statistics data analysis tool.
The wide availability of guns makes it easier to take lives, but why do American men have such a will and desire to kill?
Gun violence is so frequent and widespread in America, that it cannot be seen as an aberration. In the case of mass shootings, let me suggest that American society creates very mainstream people who perpetrate violence against random others as an assertion of male dominance over anyone wielding less power. In this paradigm, gun violence is one expression of male identity in the United States—an extreme expression—but nevertheless very much part of American masculinity, today and in the past. More than a tool, the gun serves as an object of worship that both enables domination through actual and potential shootings, and legitimates lethal aggression.
The gun defined the earliest and nearly all subsequent contact with Native-Americans. Beginning shortly after the establishment of their first colony in the future United States, in 1609, the English settlers of the Jamestown colony in Virginia proved unable to support themselves. Instead, the governor, John Smith, ordered armed men during that winter—the “starving time”—to seize the food stores of the Powhatan communities nearby and to use lethal force if the Indians resisted. The English colonies would expand through conquest by the gun over the next 300 years, picking up on the example set by the Spanish over the previous century. By the late eighteenth century, Indian-hunting had become a lucrative profession, and like big game hunting, often a hobby. Genocide proceeded through events like the Trail of Tears—a series of death marches in the mid-nineteenth century that forcibly relocated many Native peoples and killed hundreds of thousands—and through various wars, concluding with the tragedy of the Yahi in California in November 1908.
In other words, the English colonies and the early United States were a frontier nation of invaders. “Taming of the land” meant mass slaughter of people, and of wildlife. The frontier created a “gunfighter nation”, as Richard Slotkin calls it, where men wielded the power of life and death in a bitter struggle for survival—or at least this is how American culture subsequently glorified it. Gunfighter nation, both in the mythical past and present, is the domain where even the most common man can rise to heroic exaltation with some grit and a gun.
Eventually, the frontier closed, and a brutal Civil War ended slavery in 1865. Ever since, the gun had become firmly entrenched as a sacred symbol of white male ethnonationalism, and more recently, of masculine power in general. Whites imposed Jim Crow (racial segregation) laws, and terrorized black people through widespread rape, murder, and mass incarceration that quickly turned freed slaves and their descendants back into an oppressed people hardly distinguishable from slaves. Wars abroad further exalted violence as the first and best solution to whatever men find intolerable, and the means to obtain whatever they find desirable, whether at a political or personal level, usually some combination of power, wealth, and status.
At the individual level of mass shooters, each has a unique mix of grievances, including failed aspirations, the presence of women, immigrants, anybody who seems happier or more fulfilled, or, as it appears in the Boulder shooting, less than desired financial success. Whatever the grievance(s), male gun violence is the one common factor.
The test case to rank the current status of the gun was the Sandyhook Elementary School Shooting in Newtown, CT on 14 December 2012. A male shooter murdered twenty children aged between six- and seven-years-old, plus six adult faculty and staff. Which are more important to Americans—the lives of grade school children, or gun ownership rights? The nationwide response was to expand open carry gun rights and facilitate gun ownership in multiple states, not restrict them in any way. Gun owners would argue that the dangers shown by an event like Sandyhook mean it is more important that guns can get into the hands of the law-abiding; a cynic would say gun ownership took precedence over the lives of children.
Guns don’t wield themselves of course. From a social-psychological perspective, protecting the gun means protecting the wielder, which means a masculine identity that fears and hates the world, and longs for the day when they can carry out violent justice. That maleness is the key variable is highlighted by the fact that guns are increasingly found among non-white males; this is not just Jim Crow in a new guise.
The research of Angela Stroud and others shows that “good guys with guns” and “bad guys with guns” share the same social-psychological profile, which is deeply rooted in anxiety and resentment—fears about looking weak, about failing to succeed or worse being outdone by Other people(s), and a desire to act—to be a “real man”—to set things “right”, i.e. in their own favor.
To be sure, the vast majority of male gun owners never threaten or kill anyone: they are perfectly law-abiding, as gun lobbyists swiftly and accurately point out whenever someone suggests the slightest restraint on guns, an unlikely eventuality given the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its interpretation over the last few decades by the Supreme Court to guarantee a near-unfettered individual right to keep and bear arms. It can be argued that the Second Amendment is a legal relic from a bygone circumstance, namely the frontier period, but it makes no practical difference: it is there and it is staying. Moreover, it underlines the point: with rare, slightly exceptions, all the shooters were law-abiding—right up until they started shooting. Leaving the question of which of our current law-abiding gun owners will be the next shooter?
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Rocha, Veronica, Elise Hammond, Joshua Berlinger, and Adam Renton. 2021. “Multiple Dead In Shooting At Colorado Supermarket.” CNN: https://www.cnn.com/us/live-news/colorado-king-soopers-shooting/index.html
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