October 2, 2015
I’ve been writing about boys and guns for a long time now. I was writing about it before Columbine. I’m writing about it today and I imagine I will be writing about it 20 years from now. Boys (and men) love guns and shooting them. Some shoot targets and tin cans and some shoot people. A lot of people.
I’ve been doing a lot of talking about boys and guns for the last 24-hours after a young man in my state decided to go on a shooting spree at Umpqua Community College, killing nine people. That was the 294th mass shooting this year with a body count of 380 people killed, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker. When it’s close to home, like yesterday’s shooting in Roseburg, it hurts, but if it’s not, it can be just background noise of life in America. As President Obama put it so powerfully yesterday, we have become numb. Comfortably numb.
It’s about gender first
If all these shootings had been committed by girls and women, you better believe we would be talking about gender. We are so used to boys shooting that we don’t even see it. I was a boy and I was taught to love guns. I had plastic six-shooters and then graduated to a plastic tommy gun that shot sparks out of the barrel. The movies and TV shows I loved had gun violence and so did the video games. But I didn’t become a mass murderer.
I learned that violence was a part of my maleness. If I was having a beef with another boy in school, he’d ultimately say, “Let’s go outside and solve this like men.” That didn’t mean we were going to have a discussion about our feelings. I didn’t fight much, but I did obsess over comic books where my heroes did a lot of fighting. And I did play high school football for a while because the most violent sports were the easiest way to confirm my teenage masculinity. During practice I would bang my helmet on the bleachers to make it look I got in some “good hits.” But I didn’t become a mass murderer.
So much of the way think of “manning up” is wrapped up in violence and the best way to attack a boy or man is to attack his masculinity. But, unfortunately, the quickest way to push back against that is with violence, especially gun violence and go out like a man. When we look at the boys and men who commit these mass shootings, they usually have been emasculated in some way. They have been bullied, or had a wife leave them, or lost a job. I’ve had all the above and thoughts of retributive violence certainly crossed my mind, but I didn’t become a mass murderer.
These shooters are almost always suicidal. The ones that aren’t killed by police or their own bullet, like the Charleston church shooter, just chicken out at the last minute. When right-wingers call for putting more guns in schools, movie theaters, and churches, it sounds wonderfully John Wayne, but would have zero deterrent effect. These boys and men want to die. They just want to take as many people with them as they go out the door. They suffer from acute depression, something I have known in my own life, but I didn’t become a mass murderer.
The sociopathic boy
So we know that these shooters are males (usually white, but not always), fixated on guns and violence, who have been emasculated in some way and suffer from depression. Well, that describes probably the majority of males in this culture at some point, including myself. Gender is the funnel that moves boys and men closer to this act but there has to be something more than that.
As I wrote in my 2000 book with Wayne Wooden, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws, there is a psychological thread that connected the wave of school shooters leading up to Columbine. They tended to have evidence of sociopathic personalities. Someone with Anti-Social Personality Disorder displays the classic psychopathic attributes. They are cruel and manipulative. They are driven by impulse and act without the guilt mechanism that stops the rest of us from doing bad things. They have a big devil on one shoulder but no angel on the other to balance out those dark thoughts and impulses. If it feels good, do it.
Sociopathy in boys starts early. We get the big three red flags; bedwetting, animal cruelty, and fire starting. If you have a boy who has an issue with two of those, you are probably OK. But if they’ve regularly expressed all three there is a chance you could end up like Kip Kinkel’s parents. As we learn more about the Roseburg shooter, I expect we will find a clear case of sociopathic behavior. Some of his social media postings point in that direction.
Sociopaths are angry at the world for not giving them what they think they are entitled to. They want others to suffer the way they do and are willing to go out in an orgy of violence so the world will remember their name. And absolutely nothing can stop them (unless they can’t get their hands on their weapon of choice).
The problem with sociopathy is that we barely understand it. Some evidence points to early childhood sexual trauma. Some newer research connects it to chromosomal damage and brain dysfunction. If we don’t understand its cause, we can’t take that psychopathic kid and treat him or her (sometimes it is a female) before something big happens. So here’s our call for more mental health interventions for young people, but the reality is that sociopaths walk among us and we really have no defense against them.
Of course guns are a factor
Let’s make this simple and complete the equation. The profile of a mass shooter = Violence obsessed male + sociopathic personality + access to guns. I suppose these potential mass murderers could blow up schools, like Christian Slater did in the 1989 film Heathers, but that requires a lot of work. Guns are easy. More than a third of all American households have a gun. That’s a decrease from the 1970s, but it’s still plenty of readily available armaments.
There is some important information for you 2nd Amendment advocates I’d like to share. All our constitutional freedoms are negotiated. You have freedom of speech but you do not have the freedom to slander or shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. On your next air flight, tell the attendant that you have a bomb and then try to hide behind the 1st Amendment. The same thing with the right to keep and bear arms.
The 2nd Amendment, authored in 1789, does not give you the right to keep and bear nuclear arms. It also does not give children, inmates, convicted felons the right to own handguns. The courts constantly negotiate and update our constitutional freedoms. You do not have the right to own a TEC-DC9 assault weapon unless the Supreme Court says you do. And if you don’t believe that, you don’t understand how America works.
So there is a way to have sensible gun laws that limit the access of certain kinds of people to certain kinds of (high power) weapons. The rest of the world can do it, why can’t we? I share in the president’s frustration over how hard it is to get over this hump. I thought after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012 we had finally had enough. But, apparently, we haven’t.
Get ready for more carnage
The good news is the gun violence, in general, has been on the decline in America since 1993. Things are getting better and most of can sleep at night knowing our family is not going to be mowed down by a crazed gunman. But the model of mass shooting as a glorious suicide is now part of our culture and we can chose to accept that. (The “Columbine Effect“)
There is going to be more bloodshed and body counts. Students are going to continue to die as well as people in churches and in movie theaters and in work places. We will call for prayers and hold vigils and then forget about it until it happens again, probably tomorrow. Boys love their guns and if a few of them are sociopathic and shoot somebody else’s boys, or girls, or mommies, or dads, that’s the price we pay for “freedom.” It’s the American bloodsport that we’ve become accustomed to.
This is a complex issue that no simple solution is going to fix. But if we look at the issue of violence and masculinity, sociopathy, and gun access together, we might have a few less days like yesterday.
Note: As feminists have acknowledged, there are some very positive aspects of masculinity, like care for the family. Those are the boys we want to raise and you don’t need guns to do it.