Column: Gender, the missing link in our gun debates

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, October 9, 2015 1:05am
  • Opinion

I’m sure I read way too many articles about last week’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. But one written by Soraya Chemaly stood apart from most. It was published by The Huffington Post under the title “Mass Killings in the US: Masculinity, Masculinity, Masculinity.” Chemaly had to emphasis that one word because almost no one else will acknowledge that the perpetrator in 95 percent of these violent crimes is men.

“There will be more of these; we absolutely know it,” James Fallows predicted in The Atlantic Magazine after the Aurora theater murders in July 2012. And he added, “We also know that we will not change the circumstances that allow such episodes to recur.” Tragically, he was right. This is the 10th shooting where four or more people were killed since then. And in all but one, a man pulled the trigger.

Just before the Sandy Hook massacre three years ago I pointed out this troubling fact. And I argued that the inability to distinguish between personal power and the illusion of power from possessing firearms seems to be a peculiar male problem.

Now I’m not an expert like James Alan Fox, who USA Today regards as “the nation’s leading criminologist.” At Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Fox has performed extensive research on mass murder. After Sandy Hook, he and Monica J. DeLateur wrote a 21-page article about mass shootings that focused on disproving seven “misconceptions that seem to have encouraged policy responses with a slim probability of achieving their desired outcome: eliminating the risk of mass murder.”

Fox and DeLateur examined 528 cases where four or more people were killed by a single shooter. They looked at the shooter’s gender when examining the myth that typical shooter profiles could be used to identify mass killers before they act. But even though they recognized that 95 percent of the killers were male, they offered no recommendations for studying why men are far more likely than women to use a gun to kill other human beings.

And it’s not just the horribly sensationalist shootings like Aurora, Sandy Hook and Umpqua. Even though since 1980 women have dramatically closed the gender gap in terms of gun ownership, nine out of 10 of all gun homicides are still committed by men. Why aren’t we asking why?

Just imagine if men were nine times more likely than women to have a heart attack due to psychological stress. We’d be funding all kinds of studies to understand and solve the problem. But don’t go looking for any sociological analysis or news commentary that focuses on this astounding gender disparity regarding gun violence.

Instead, it’s like Stephen Colbert said on “The Late Show” the night of the Umpqua shooting. “I think pretending is part of the problem.” And one of the things we’re pretending is that there is no gender link.

Chemaly is trying break down this barrier. She says we need “a public conversation about hegemonic masculinity in the United States, particularly the historical and social relationship between ideals of white manhood, agency and guns.” With such overwhelming statistics supporting her, why does she seem like a voice crying out from the wilderness?

To understand that, there are some readily available clues in the evolution of laws regarding rape. Male lawmakers resisted raising the age defining statutory rape from 10 to 18 a century ago by proposing absurd amendments such as mandating that all women must consent to sex after the age of eighteen. It took years of effort by women before shield laws were passed to prevent the accused rapist from being able to turn the case against the victim just because she was sexually active. And it wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was illegal in every state.

Rape too is about power, not sexual passion or gratification. And that illusion of power is almost exclusively a male problem.

History shows us that men have a collective aversion to acknowledging that we possess any unique gender weaknesses. It’s an insecurity mirrored by the irrational fear many men have that government is trying to take away their guns. So until our whole society takes women like Soraya Chemaly seriously, men in positions of power will continue to throw up obstructions to addressing gun violence in America.

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