There are 17 people dead following the catastrophic Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14, 2018. Boys and girls, men and women. Teens as young as 14, adults up to age 49. The victims were scholars, athletes, teachers, coaches, veterans, musicians, and chefs; loud, quiet, funny, studious, talented, outgoing, and smart. They were fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Many were children.
Guns know no race, no ethnicity, no skill set, occupation, age, personality, religion, sexuality, or gender. But gunmen—men like Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter—do.
One characteristic that nearly all mass shooters in recent American history have shared is a record of violent behavior toward women. Devin Kelley, the man responsible for 26 deaths at a rural Texas church in November of 2017, was convicted five years earlier of beating his then-wife, Tessa, and fracturing the skull of her infant son. According to an existing U.S. statute, Kelley should never have been able to purchase a firearm—but because his Air Force base failed to report this conviction to the National Criminal Information Center, he could, and he did. Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was well-known for verbally abusing Marilou Danley, his girlfriend, in public places. Cruz was no exception; he regularly threatened and hit his ex-girlfriend before their breakup, sent aggressive text messages to her new boyfriend, and actively stalked another female student in the months prior to the Parkland shooting. Some students, including friends of the ex-girlfriend, claim to have reported Cruz’s disturbing actions to school administrators. No disciplinary actions were taken.
Just type “shooters + domestic violence” into your computer’s search engine, and wait. You’ll be shocked by the sheer volume of evidence that exists linking these infamous men to their abusive pasts. Why have we allowed such miscarriages of justice to persist? It seems to be because nobody—at least, nobody with substantive legislative power—cares enough to make a change. We have access to extensive quantities of research documenting the insidious relationship between domestic abusers and mass gun deaths. The simple click of a computer mouse can show us countless examples of the lives our country has lost as a result of failed background checks. Still, lawmakers have done nothing to fix our broken gun control legislation. And, perhaps even worse, American citizens have, by and large, done little to address the glaring cultural issues that have led us here in the first place.
Gun ownership, especially the ownership of military-style assault rifles like the one used in the Parkland shooting, reflect a persisting culture of toxic masculinity that has, over time, become embedded in the American identity. A 2010 Bushmaster advertisement displays its .223-calibre semi-automatic rifle beside a bellicose black font that reads, “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.” A similar Colt Pistol ad depicts a man pointing his gun at an intruder with the caption, “The arm of law and order.” The message is clear: real men own guns. This, and the fact that a massive proportion of our local, state, and federal lawmakers remain beholden to the NRA’s strictly pro-gun ideologies (and their checkbooks), means that the prospect of passing legislation to make it more difficult for bad men to get guns seems at best unlikely, and at worst inconceivable.
If we want to end this cycle of senseless, preventable violence, we not only have to change the way we talk about guns, but also the way we think about them. Sure, mental health, a flawed background check system, and legal loopholes that make purchasing guns easier are all valid concerns, and they demand meaningful legislative solutions. But perhaps an even greater problem, one that cannot be corrected within the confines of our existing legal structure, is a culturally embedded one—the American conception of guns as emblems of manhood. It would be incorrect and irresponsible to claim that gun control is not a profoundly gendered issue; Statista reported that between 1982 and February of 2018, men committed an astonishing 94 percent of all mass shootings in the United States. If that number doesn’t convince you that something is wrong with American male gun culture, then you’re probably… an American male with a gun.
Purchasing a steel chamber with the capacity to take a life does not make you more of a man, nor does it compensate for your inability to perform in the bedroom. It does not earn you popularity points with the ladies. It will not fix your relationship with your father, and it will not buy you more friends at school. It certainly won’t “reissue your man card,” whatever the hell that means. Men are men, regardless of whether or not they own firearms.
We resolve our problems by speaking, not shooting—and it’s time to start teaching our boys to kill ‘em with kindness, not with assault rifles.