The Newtown Anniversary: Facing the Toxic Mix of Men and Guns

The first Newtown anniversary is almost upon us. As no doubt you know, the dead included 20 young children and six adults. There are now 26 families for whom this holiday season will once again be a reminder of that traumatic day and all that they lost. The holidays may never again be a time of celebration for them. Although I live very far away from Connecticut and did not know any of those families, as a parent myself I have a great deal of sympathy for the 20 sets of parents who will never again welcome their children home from school. My sadness is also for us, their nationwide community, who are now deprived of 20 children who could have had bright futures, who could have contributed in ways we could not even have imagined. We are also deprived of six adults who, by their very professions, had so much to offer. We are diminished by their loss. men and guns

Tragically, they are not the only ones we have lost and theirs are not the only families that are grieving. The roll call they joined this week is long: Newtown, Connecticut; Clackamas, Oregon; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Tucson, Arizona; Fort Hood, Texas; Blacksburg, Virginia; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Washington, DC; Littleton, Colorado. In fact, the roll call is so lengthy that I actually had to limit it. It is sickening. I hate that every time I have to add to the list, I say, “Not again” and every time there is another, just as there was on that Friday in Connecticut.

If you haven’t already guessed, the list comprises the towns in which mass murder sprees in the United States occurred. Much has been written and said about these events, including prior blog posts by me. Frankly, I’m tired of writing about it and wish I never had to again. But here I am. Most of what has been discussed has included the ongoing debate over gun control and how institutions can make themselves more secure. Given that my son attends elementary school, I am very sympathetic to such thinking but I hate to think of turning a place of learning into an armed fortress. Moreover, I have to wonder what will be next. Are they going to put a bulletproof fence around the playground and pat down people attending school events too? Where will it end?

More to the point, such security measures will never be enough. People who are determined to kill will always find a way. As such, putting our focus solely on safety is a huge mistake, one that guarantees that Newtown will not be the last name added to the list. And it isn’t. Since Newtown, there have been 20 additional schools that endured gun violence. Since Newtown, 17 additional people have died in school shootings. As such, it is clear that focusing on security does not work. We need to stop being reactive versus proactive and start looking at the big picture instead of emphasizing the present moment.

In order to do this, we must face reality and start discussing the true causes of mass killings. Many people have talked about the presence of guns but far fewer have mentioned the other aspect to these tragedies: men. While there have been a few female mass murderers, the vast majority of the killers are male. And when you add guns to the mix, you have what my statistics professor would call an interactional effect. So, we have to start exploring what it is about the mixture of men and guns that often turns out so deadly.

For those who say that it is people and not the guns that are the problem, you’re half right. A literature review conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that, regardless of country or state, a higher availability of guns equals more homicide. Social psychological research backs up this finding as well. Studies have shown that the mere presence of an object of aggression will cause more violence because the aggressive object is a visual cue that sticks in people’s memories. That may be one reason why that, according to the FBI, guns were involved in over 67% of all murders in 2010, a number that doesn’t even include deaths from suicides and accidents. So yes, guns are definitely part of the problem.

I don’t need to cite other statistics (look them up, they are tragic) but suffice it to say that there are a LOT of gun-related deaths here in the United States, over 30,000 of them. Way too many. I’ve heard people say that the answer to all of this is for citizens to have more guns because then people would be too afraid to start shooting in public places. First of all, I kind of doubt that this would work because, despite being bristling with guns and people trained to use them, it took the world’s largest military base approximately 15 minutes to subdue the Fort Hood shooter and that was after he killed 13 people and wounded 29 others, most of whom were soldiers. If people trained to kill suffered so much damage before taking down a shooter, how can we expect civilians with less training to do better?

Secondly, is that really the way we want to live, in fear of what our fellow citizens will do? There is a funny scene in the movie L.A. Story in which one of the main characters realized it was the beginning of spring and, as they were driving down the highway, he got out a gun and started randomly shooting out his window just so people wouldn’t shoot at them. The scene was making fun of road rage and it was humorous but, in reality, such a scenario would be a nightmare. Is that truly what we want for our future? If it is not, then we need to get serious about sensible gun control. But people are right that guns are not the only problem; we also need to take a look at who is doing the shooting.

The people who are doing the shooting are men. Their ages and races differ (although most were young and Caucasian) but they were all men. This should not be a surprise because, according to Department of Justice figures on homicide trends, men are the perpetrators in close to 90% of all homicides. In addition, men are responsible for over 90% of gun related deaths. What is surprising is the fact that men are the ones responsible for these mass murders is not a topic that has not been covered in any depth by the media. When are we going to wake up and discuss how some aspects of masculinity are leading us in an increasingly deadly direction?

Let me be clear that I do not think that women are better than men nor do I believe that people are destined to act in certain ways based on their gender (a philosophy called gender essentialism). However, I do believe that there is something toxic that we are teaching our boys and men that leads them to deem violence as an acceptable way to relieve their suffering. Perhaps it is the glorification of violence and how we tie manliness to the ability to force others to do what you want. Or maybe it is the way we not only accept male aggression (“boys will be boys” said with an indulgent smile) but actively encourage it with sports like football, boxing and ultimate fighting in which violence is an integral part of how you win.

Or possibly it is the rigid stereotype of what it means to be a man in our society. Psychologist Herb Goldberg has written a great deal on what he calls the “male harness,” the idea that men must be successful, emotionally controlled, competitive, and independent. Thus, many boys and men believe that, in order to be a man, they must repress their emotions, deny themselves emotionally intimate relationships and refuse to seek help because they don’t want to look weak.

It could be that when you stir it all together, you have boys and men who believe that violence is a good way to show that they are manly, whose prior aggression has rarely been curbed, and who are in a great amount of pain because they have no acceptable outlets. In such cases, an explosion is coming and the only question is how it is going to occur. That is when adding easily accessible guns to the mix turns it into a deadly interaction. I am not saying that this is what happened in these mass murders; I am only saying that it could have. The only way to know for certain is for us to start scrutinizing the factors that are leading men to kill.

There are, of course, other aspects to these tragedies that should not go unexamined. A few voices (including mine) have pointed out that our mental health system should be upgraded so we can not only focus on better treatment but also on improved levels of prevention. We also need to tackle the idea that freedom means that everyone should be able to do whatever they want. It doesn’t. To quote Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many often outweigh the needs of the few.”

If we truly want to debate freedom, then I firmly believe that the freedom of children to go to school without being shot dwarfs the freedom of someone to own a gun. I strongly think that the right to go to work without getting shot overshadows the rights of someone else to have a gun. But whatever your beliefs, it is time that we have a rational conversation about the causes of these tragedies, figure out the steps we need to take (and I do think this is going to require a significant cultural shift), and then move forward with the solutions. Those 20 dead children deserve nothing less.

In the meantime, I cannot stop thinking about the 20 families in Connecticut who have had a hard time this past year and for whom the first year anniversary will be even more difficult. My heart aches for the 20 families whose lights were extinguished, whose hopes for the future were taken away. And while I also grieve for the adults who lost their lives – for those brave and dedicated educators and psychologist who did their best for our children to the very end – children are different. They have their whole lives ahead of them and have not yet had the chance to truly live. They deserved that opportunity but, because of our unwillingness to squarely face what needs to change in our culture, those 20 children didn’t get to live to see another day. This must stop. We must do more than just stand in solidarity with the people of Newtown or soon the roll call will be even longer and there will be more parents whose sorrow we will share. So please, quit looking away and stop facing reality. Let’s finally do whatever it takes to end this senseless slaughter. Enough is enough.

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