Mass Shooters Are Almost Always White Men. Dr. Jackson Katz—World Renowned Expert and Activist on Gender Violence—Explains Why
Ask any child worried about a shooting at school or any teacher who imagines daily how she’ll keep her students safe in an active-shooter incident and there’s a good chance when they conjure up the image of the person carrying out the carnage, it’s a man.
Ask yourself the same question: When the next mass shooting happens in this country—which is sadly just a matter of time, given the statistics and our history of inaction after events like these—will it be a man or a woman who commits the act?
The fact that we imagine male shooters is based on facts: Men are responsible for 98 percent of mass shootings, according to the nonprofit research center The Violence Project.
So, why are men so much more prone to gun violence than women? And why is it crucial that we talk about this? We asked Jackson Katz, Ph.D., Founder & President of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and an internationally renowned activist on issues of gender, race, and violence to share his thoughts.
A Conversation with Jackson Katz, PhD
You’ve written many articles about the absence of a gender lens when we look at school shootings and mass killings. Why are we not looking through this gender lens?
First, I think gender is the most important factor in mass killings and school shootings. Why do I say that? Take school shootings, for example: Over 99 percent are done by boys and young men. If the main factors were either mental illness or availability of guns, the two pillars of the mainstream debate, then why aren’t 50 percent of the shootings done by girls? It seems so basic, doesn’t it? Because girls have every bit the mental health challenges as boys, and the same access to guns.
Another way to think about this is to imagine that 99 percent of school shootings were done by girls. Would anyone be talking about guns and mental illness first and foremost—or would we be focused on the fact that girls are committing 99 percent of violence? I think we know the answer.
Many say the reason we don’t talk about the fact that it’s mostly boys and young men carrying out these mass shootings is because it’s obvious: Everybody knows it’s boys and young men, so why do you have to say it? Here’s my response: If you don’t say it, then you won’t talk about the ways in which the act of mass violence is a gendered act, based on a whole bunch of factors that have to do with the gender of the perpetrator. If we don’t talk about it, it’s a superficial discussion.
Consider the Jonesboro, Arkansas massacre in 1998, where 13-year-old and 11-year-old white boys murdered four female classmates and a female teacher. When one of the shooters was asked why he did it, he claimed a girl had broken up with him and he was angry and wanted revenge. Meanwhile, the media coverage of that case was all about “kids killing kids.” In fact it was boys killing girls—but the media didn’t talk about it. Now, 24 years later, we’ve made some progress on this—but you still see very little discussion about the gendered heart of these crimes.
You talk about how it is impossible to comprehend, much less “solve,” the problem of mass killings without understanding the complex relationship between masculinities and violence. Why is this?
Violence is not an end unto itself—it’s a means to an end. People use violence to get something. The question becomes: What are they trying to get and why? It’s not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of violence is perpetrated by men and young men, who are doing this for a variety of reasons that are often highly gendered. To gain or maintain power and control in a relationship, for example. To assert or protect their status in a hierarchy. To gain or regain manly “respect.” For boys and men in impoverished communities with high levels of alienation and despair caused by social neglect and income inequality, sometimes it’s simply a matter of survival. It’s also important to note that all of this has global dimensions. The reason we’re having this conversation is because in the U.S., boys and young men have access to military-style firearms with high-capacity magazines, so the carnage is exponentially increased. But the problem of men’s violence is global and transhistorical. The new problem is the expanded technological capability of killing machines and the increased public access to them.
Often you find the young men who commit these acts of violence (school shootings) are doing it in response to a specific set of life circumstances. They could be angry or despondent about recent events. They’re feeling grief, disappointment, loss, rejection. They might be victims of abuse in their families or bullying in school. They’re often trauma survivors with unresolved emotional and psychological issues. Many school shooters are suicidal and plan to die after they inflict pain and death on others. And—I know this is a general statement —boys in our society and others are trained to externalize their pain. When someone abuses them, or treats them poorly, powerful cultural narratives teach them to externalize their pain and project outwardly what they’re experiencing inwardly.
This brings us back to this concept of redemptive violence, where boys and young men absorb the lesson that they can establish, prove, or reclaim their manhood through violence.
What do we need to understand about what men are going through that might help us look at this major problem of gun violence in our country?
I think it starts with things that are very basic. We need to give boys and men the permission to experience a range of emotions, including vulnerable ones, and not shame them for it. In the raising and socialization of boys, we need to make sure they know that life presents challenges and it’s OK to ask for help. You don’t have to suck it up or pretend you’re in control when you’re not. And it doesn’t mean you’re less strong, powerful or manly, if you will, if you acknowledge your vulnerability.
I think it says a lot about our society that 75 million people voted for Donald Trump even after four years of his disastrous and chaotic presidency, his seemingly non-stop bullying behavior, his malignant narcissism, his coded and overt appeals to racism and nativism, and his repeated denigration of women and other men. Think about what that says about the psyche of America. The fact that his performance of a certain kind of cartoonish white masculinity still resonates with many millions of our citizens really says something. Trump is a walking advertisement for the dangers of dysfunctional masculinity. And yet millions of people ratified that by voting for him. That shows you how deep this goes.
The idea of masculinity is a worldwide phenomenon, but we don’t see mass shootings in other parts of the world like we do here. Is there a specific version of American masculinity we need to talk about?
The rugged individualist ideology of white American manhood is at the root of some of our biggest problems. This ideology dictates that men should have mastery over themselves, power and control over others, especially women, and over nature. This ideology says that this behavior is the essence of “manhood.”
What’s more, let’s be honest with ourselves: White American men alive today are the inheritors of a deep historical legacy of extreme violence. The founding of our country was inextricably connected to the genocide of the native peoples by the white colonial settlers and then the brutality and violence of slavery. Yes, there are other parts of the American story that are less brutal and more hopeful—like immigrants coming here, knowing they could be part of this country no matter their background. That’s part of the story that should be acknowledged and celebrated. But the history of this country is steeped in violence.
Entertainment culture has had a powerful effect on shaping the narrative about violent American masculinity. Take Hollywood Westerns, the dominant genre of film in the 20th century. They were filled with stories about rough, tough gunslingers walking into town with guns blazing, and sheriffs enforcing frontier justice with extreme displays of force. We know from historical scholarship that much of this was a complete caricature and exaggeration of what was actually happening in the west. In fact, gun control in the “wild west” was way more stringent than our gun laws today!
It's also important to talk about this notion you hear on the right that the solution to gun violence is “good men with guns.” That the ultimate responsibility of men is to “protect” their families and their communities. It is, but in this sense “protection” too often means, “I need to be armed to the teeth to defend my family.” This is one of the main ways the gun industry has manipulated men into buying more guns. It’s amazing how effective they’ve been at marketing the idea that a real man protects his family with an ever-increasing personal armory of firearms. What ends up happening? In a country that has ridiculously lax gun control, you have 400 million guns. That makes it logical to say, OK, how can I protect myself and my family knowing there are all these guns in circulation, and a lot of bad people out there? I’ll arm myself so I’m ready to protect the people I care about.
When you think about it, the gun debate itself—at least subtextually—has always been about manhood. We’re not talking about abstract political questions. What we’re really debating is this: What does it mean to be a man, to be a protector? How do I think about myself in that way, and what role do guns play? This a key aspect of the debate about gun rights vs. a public health/safety approach to gun management.
OK, so what do we do about this? Most of us love a man, are raising a son, or have young men and boys in our lives who we want to make sure feel loved and seen. Where do we start?
Permission to be vulnerable is key—and this can’t just come from women. Men need to hear from other men. Boys need to hear from men.
I think we need to encourage fathers, and other adult men in the lives of boys, to talk about vulnerability. We need to talk about the fact that we don’t always have the answer, and that we’ve struggled. I think a lot of men in families are invested in the idea of being the omnipotent leader; they don’t want to acknowledge that they have experienced sadness, pain, doubt, and fear. So much of the debate in this society about changing definitions of manhood has to do with what it means to be strong. Is imposing your will on another through force the only way to demonstrate your strength? Really? What about moral courage? Social courage? I don’t want to make men soft; I think being strong is a good quality. The question isn’t about whether we want men to be strong; the question is about how we define strength.
When people—especially men—ask how they can translate their emotional reaction [to these mass shootings] into action, we need to remind them they don’t have to start from scratch! There have been men, women, and others who’ve been looking for decades at what men can do, how they can get involved. What this means is you have to be a little enterprising: go online, search out pro-feminist men’s organizations who work on issues of violence, look for articles, books, and documentary films about this topic. Knowledge is power.
I also believe each of us can think about our own spheres of influence and what can we do to make a difference in those spheres. Not everyone has a public platform. But all of us have a responsibility to our families, to our colleagues in the workplace, to our communities. You might coach your kid’s soccer team. You might be a Sunday school teacher. Within your sphere, how will you expose kids—especially young men—to different narratives about manhood and different ways of thinking about strength?
Finally, we need to talk about the central role gender plays in these shootings! The idea that it’s anti-male to even bring this up is so absurd and wrong-headed. But it’s one reason we don’t have this discussion. One way to counteract this is by acknowledging how many men have been hurt by other men’s violence. The facts are clear: Men are the primary victims of most forms of violence—outside of domestic and sexual violence. Murder, attempted murder, assault, gay bashing, bullying—men and young men are the primary victims of these crimes as well as the primary perpetrators. The idea that it’s anti-male to talk about the relationship between masculinities and violence is absurd! I’m not going to say talking about this isn’t challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable. But we need to be having these conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable.
I like to quote the late, great Rep. John Lewis, who urged young people to “never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Borrowing from Lewis, and especially as an educator, I like to say that we need to create spaces of good discomfort, necessary discomfort. Just because some men are going to feel a little unsure of themselves or unsettled by these conversations, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.