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My View: Why are young men pulling the trigger?

To combat gun violence, society must fight false gender expectations


The December anniversaries of the 2012 killings in Newtown, Conn., and closer to home, at the Clackamas Town Center, have returned public attention to gun violence. We search for answers and ask, “Why does this happen?” Mental illness? Poor parenting? Lax gun control policies?

There are many possible factors worth considering. However, one factor common to most incidents of gun violence tends to be noticeably absent from analysis of the problem — the gender of the shooters. Any account of gun violence in the United States must be able to explain both why men are perpetrators of the vast majority of shootings yet why most men never perpetuate gun violence.

According to the FBI, men represent more than 90 percent of the perpetrators of homicide. Men also are the victims of the large majority (78 percent) of that violence. Homicide by gun is the leading cause of death among black youth, the second leading cause of death among all male youth, and the second or third leading cause of death among female youth (depending on the age group).

And, as victims of domestic violence, women are especially likely to be killed by a firearm — not by a stranger in an act of random violence, but rather by a current or former spouse or intimate partner.

Even more common than homicide, suicide is another leading cause of death in the United States. Males represent the large majority of suicides, most commonly with a gun. Depending on the age group, roughly four to six times more men than women kill themselves with firearms.

The role of gender in gun violence should not be overlooked simply because the vast majority of boys and men do not perpetrate gun violence. Nor should gun violence be excused as inevitable, that “boys will be boys.” Gender differences in gun violence vary substantially within regions of the United States and across countries.

Instead, we need to critically examine our definitions of manhood and what we teach boys about being men.

A large body of social science examining these topics during the past 25 years tells us that status as a “man” is achieved by the display of certain stereotypical masculine characteristics. This status is demonstrated through avoiding anything perceived to be feminine and instead acting tough and aggressive, internalizing emotions other than anger (particularly feelings of vulnerability such as fear and sadness), being fiercely independent and in control, heterosexual, and successfully competing against other men.

Boys and men who fulfill these expectations are rewarded with attention and opportunity. Those who don’t measure up are questioned, challenged (“Dude, you are so gay!”, “You throw like a girl,” “Toughen up — Big boys don’t cry!”) or become physically victimized by other men.

Male role expectations for the achievement of success and power, combined with restricted emotionality, may have particularly dangerous consequences, particularly for boys who suffer major losses and need help. A majority of the males who have completed homicides at schools had trouble coping with a recent major loss. Many also had experienced bullying or other harassment.

When male gender and characteristics associated with male gender are highly common among attackers, it is responsible to ask how dominant masculinities may contribute to school shootings and other forms of gun violence.

The sociologist Michael Kimmel has suggested that a sense of “aggrieved entitlement” may be common across school shootings that involve multiple, nontargeted victims. In this view, male youth see suicide and violent revenge as appropriate, even expected, responses to threats to their manhood status.

An analysis of the link between gender and gun violence suggests the potential value of addressing masculinity as part of our efforts to address the problem. Many men are able to sufficiently reject dominant narratives about proving manhood and avoid using violence to demonstrate power or gain control over others. We could learn by asking them, how do they manage to do so?

In addition, preliminary evidence suggests that programs aimed at helping young men change what they believe about masculinity can help reduce intimate partner and sexual violence. Such programs need to be further developed and more rigorously tested for their potential to also reduce gun violence.

In our roles as parents, teachers, health care workers, employers, co-workers, neighbors, religious leaders and elected officials, we all have a part to play in challenging gender expectations for males that emphasize self-sufficiency, entitlement, toughness and violence. Creating communities that value human diversity, vulnerability as well as strength, and shared power could help break the link between gender and gun violence.

Eric Mankowski is a professor and associate chairman of the Department of Psychology at Portland State University. He was a member of a national panel of experts commissioned by the American Psychological Association to review research on gun violence prediction and prevention. The report can be read at www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/gun-violence-prevention.aspx.