The Elephant in the Room: Why is the Gunman Always Male?

As a nation, we are reeling. On Friday, December 14, 20 young children—12 girls, 8 boys—and six female teachers and school administrators were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in one of the most harrowing acts of gun violence in this nation’s history. After a year of some of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history, Newtown’s was among the most sickening in large part because the majority of the victims were young children between five and seven years old. A number of writers have begun to offer policy suggestions to outline, as President Obama called it, “meaningful action” on gun control.

To truly address the problem of which Newtown reminded us in the most horrific way, gender, and its entanglement with culture, poverty, and mental health requires serious attention in addition to gun policy reform. On NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, Shankar Vedantam pointed out common characteristics of gunmen in the most recent gun massacres including Friday’s in Newtown:

“[I]f you look at the series of incidents that have happened in recent years, there are several things that stand out in terms of patterns….the shooters have always been men.”

Why is the gunman always male? After the Aurora, Colorado shooting during the opening of the Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Premiere in July, Feministing ran a piece by Eesha Pandit, Executive Director at Men Stopping Violence. Pandit wrote:

What we are missing in our collective understanding is the gendered nature of mass homicide…the acknowledgement of ‘male violence’ without conflating it with all different kinds of violence is particularly useful, because it helps us contextualize the violence in our society as a function of patriarchy and sexism.

On its face, the patriarchy and sexism about which Pandit writes seems to be rearing its head here. In this instance, the gunman, Adam Lanza, chose to first murder his mother and then drive to a nearby school where he massacred women and young children. At this time, there is no proof of gender animus as a motive specifically in this event. But the facts—the gender identity of the shooter and the gender identity of the victims— underly why policy solutions should include greater examination of gender, men’s relationship to women and to each other, in addition to advocating greater gun regulation. This event alone, along with domestic violence trends generally, makes clear that male-against-female violence persists and emerges in frightening ways.

Also important, Pandit pointed out that violent behaviors are deeply rooted in economic, health, and cultural factors, and that this context also tends to be underacknowledged in society generally.

“We have to name male violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon—one that occurs in the context of race, class, gender, citizenship, ability, sexuality and so on,” Pandit pointed out. “To name it without interrogating [these intersections] won’t take us far.”

In other words, there are ways in which gender interacts with multiple other phenomena  in manifesting violence. Pandit also points out that “ability” is a factor—mental illness in particular, and its connection to gun violence, requires greater attention. In addition, Richard Florida wrote in the Atlantic that gun deaths are positively correlated with poverty.

Setting aside the horrific massacres of Newtown, Aurora, Columbine and all the others, many acts of violence are not typically shootings en masse: they are perpetrated by men toward other individuals or small groups, and quite often against other men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in most instances, the victims of male violence are actually other males.

The CDC also reports that among youth in grades 9 to 12, 40 percent of young males report having been in a physical fight, while 24 percent of females report having been in a physical fight. There are cultural/economic/gender questions that are relevant to both the massacres and to all violent incidents, and those must also be addressed with rigor and with attention to how they vary.

One of the most intuitive, immediate policy solutions to the gun massacres seems to be restricting access to automatic weapons. There also needs to be heightened focus on untangling gender specifically from all of this. How are we choosing to socialize boys and young men, are we helping them achieve health and wellness, and how can we reform current practices to help prevent massacres like Newtown and smaller-scale acts of violence? Whether we are aware of it or not, we built our gender practices and identities, and we too can reform them.

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  • cade

    There are actually two factors we collectively ignore: that mass killing/rampage shooters are almost always male and almost always of the most privileged ethnic/racial group in their society. In our society’s case, it’s white.


    But we can just focus on gender for now, although it’s important to remember how the two relate, namely in the terms of privilege.


    It’s not men or masculinity that is the problem. The problem is privilege, or the expectation of privilege. I’ve been pouring over reports about Lanza mostly because I am an autistic American who is greatly troubled by the speculation that Lanza had autism (which him may have, for the sake of argument, but clearly there was something else that was causing his detoriating state as he exhibited many signs of severe mental illness that is not part of autism). What I am gathering for the statements of people for knew this family was this:


    Lanza’s nuclear family consisted of 3 men and one women–him, his older brother, his father and his mother. When his parents divorced, his father continued his success in an ideal “male” career, one where his made a lot of money and had clout. His mother assumed full parenting resonsiblities of Lanza, who already had a history of distrubed behavior by that time. His brother, upon becoming an adult, pursued the same career as his father, and in this same time frame, distanced himself also from Lanza’s life, having told the police he had not spoken to lanza for over 2 years when the shooting occured. 


    So we have a family where one male member is disturbed and clearly disabled and the other two men in the family had distanced themselves from his care. Moreover, both of those men took on high-powered, ideal “male” careers. Who’s taking care of Lanza while the men in the family are off building their career and making money the way “real men” are suppose to? The mother. As far as I can tell, only she assumed any responsiblity for caring for Lanza. And there’s more than a few hints that she was overhwhelmed: freinds of her repeatingly mention her drinking, she acknowleged Lanza’s disturbed behavior had continually escalated yet it does appear she sought out professional mental health help for him, and there is evidence she may have “escaped” her sense of powerless over her son’s situation via what some are calling “doomsday prepping” or similar activites that included collecting guns.


    This was not a happy family, and themes of male success vs. male “failure” may have played a big role in Lanza’s life.


    Did his father express anger that one son was successful like him yet the other was “bright” but “troubled”? Did the older brother resent having a disabled younger brother, and distanced himself purposely? Did the mother have a drinking problem, which would greatly rise the chances she abused Lanza, and perhaps in a drinken rage berate him for not being more like his brother or father and for being a burden or embarassment for her? Or maybe she also had a mental illness and could not cope with Lanza’s care, and had no one who she felt she could ask to help, assuming as many female caretakers do that it’s soley her job? All of these things are very common in families were there is a disabled male member, especially a younger one, and the caretaking falls exclusively on a female member. It’s also a family situation created by male privilege. The successful men in the family think, “I’m dong what I need to do. I cannot let this disabled family member keep me from it. She [the caretaker] will simply have to suck it up and deal with this on her own.”


    If Lanza was in a family where he was repeatedly recieving messages that he was a failure as man, that he had all this potential and opportunity (thanks to being not just smart but also male, white and well-off), how did this shaped Lanza’s worldview? Did it make him feel like he deserved something he didn’t have, but his brother and father did? Also in our culture, we idealize hyper-masculine behavior, like “killing anyone who gets in your way.” Especially in entertainment of all forms. Lanza reportedly liked video games. I play video games too–and sadly, there is a serious imbalance in the game culture where the most common and dominant type of game is the one where the storyline is precisely that: killing whomever gets in your way. As a woman, I get tired of that, and look for other games with more diverse storylines. But for a young, angry and disabled man who’s being told from various directions he’s failing as a man, how would he respond that? Would this be an ideal that he, over time, internalized, shaping his attitude toward society as “I’ve been shafted, and society owes me, and I going to go get society back for that”?


    Is this why his rampage seemed particulary targeted at women, by killing his mother, then going to a place where most of the adults would be women (an elementary school) and then killing mostly girls (2/3 of the children killed were girls)? Did he see being left behind by his brother and father to be cared for by his mother as “proof” he wasn’t a “real man” and he came to see women as his oppressors. i.e. the people who are in his way?


    And by killing a number of his “oppressors” and then himself, was he trying to retailate against a patriarchal society that lavishly awards the men who confrom (like his brother and father) with lots of privilege (like being excused from taking care of a disabled family member) and cruelly marginalizes those men that don’t live up to the patriarchal standard, like a disabled young man like himself?


    This is what I’m getting from this story.

  • coralsea

    Excellent insight, Cade.  And I very much agree with you that the concept of “privilege” and the fear of being denied it is behind many violent crimes — particularly in cases in which men attack women or whites (or other “privileged” groups) attack those who are perceived to be “lower on the totem pole.”


    I also think the concepts of caregiving (and on whom these duties most often fall, which, as you surmise, is female family members) and the lack of good, readily available mental health resources are definitely in need of thorough discussion.   I don’t like the idea of automatically blaming families or parents; lack of resources to deal with mental illness is a HUGE issue–even in cases in which the family tries desperately to find help for a disturbed and/or violent family member.   There is no real intervention available for violent children until they do something horrible and the legal system becomes involved.  That said, even in this day and age, there is a lot of ignorance regarding mental illness, learning disabilities, ADD, and other conditions on the part of some parents, and rather than providing support and understanding, and helping a child learn to embrace what they do well and manage the problems that they have, parents just shrug and withdraw or punish and berate. 


    I know this first-hand as someone who had (and still has) serious learning disabilities.  My inability to read at age 12 was considered MY problem.  This was, in part, because I was a girl, and girls in the 1960s didn’t matter all that much.   I also have bipolar, although that didn’t emerge in a serious way until my late 20s and has, for the past 15 years, been well-managed by medication.  Still, my parents don’t get it.  The fact that I am on medication embarrasses them and they think that all I need to do is attend church.(!)  But for all of my problems, I didn’t run up against serious behavioral problems.


    The relationships between men and their sons is often agonizing to behold.  Where my learning problems were ignored (you know — girl), boys who have similar problems whom I have observed, within my family and in acquaintances’ families are often subjected to constant pressure to achieve.  Men appear often to have a real ego-need for their sons to reflect well on them, and even if they aren’t trying to be cruel, can put terrible pressure on sons who don’t appear to be up to the task.  This is doubly true with very successful men.  If I remember right, Kip Kinkle, one of the “first” of the modern wave of school shooters, who also killed his parents, was a bright but underachieving kid, and his father, who was otherwise a very well-loved teacher, was always “on” his son about his lack of achievement.


    Women and girls have benefited greatly from feminism.  We can now have careers in our own right and achieve success without too much criticism.  But despite the increased involvement of men in parenting (usually the fun stuff, though, like taking the kids to soccer practice) men and boys have remained locked in fairly rigid roles and subject to rigid ideals: be athletic, be smart, be successful, make lots of money, be “a stud,” date the alpha-girls.  Not only can this lead to men and boys who are emotionally distant and “locked away,” but it can also take a terrible toll on men and boys who don’t neatly fit within the “ideal.”  I would think the sense of failure or fear of failure must be overwhelming for a lot of these young men.  They deserve better from their families.  They also deserve better from society and from mental health providers.  As women, who know what it’s like to shoulder the pressure of stupid expectations, we should do whatever we can to initiate a dialogue on broadening the role of fatherhood and broadening the definition of what makes for a “successful” son/young man so that it doesn’t focus so much on competition and monetary achievement.  Boys shouldn’t have to “live up” to what is often simply a recipe for emotional and social isolation.

  • olivia-larosa

    I posted a reply to an article in the NYT about Newtown with nearly the same headline. It was deleted as “against policy.” Apparently, talking about the elephant violates a lot of rules.

    I am posting mainly to show my support for your conclusions. Until we come to grips with this problem we will continue to allow innocents to die at the hands of madmen. 


    Here’s my post, at my blog:


    The Elephant in the Room: The Man

  • give-em-hell-mary

    I read somewhere that Einstein was believed to be mentally challenged because he was a few years behind in speaking and reading skills, so you are in good company.

  • ljean8080

    If so,you owe her an apology.

  • ljean8080

    i got mixed up about what you were replying to.

  • transcendent

    Interesting read but I think perhaps it’s reaching quite a bit. Women do murder people and do have killing sprees, if you judge society just by what makes “headlines” you’ll miss most of it. For instance:

    Also one should acknowledge the possibility of Lanza just being a sociopath formerly termed pyshopath. Essentially someone that cannot process things like empthy or sympathy, in no way relating to someone elses grief or pain. Here’s an interesting read from a mother dealing with this:


    Socio-ecnomic problems can clearly create bitterness or upset in a white male’s mind or anyone for that matter, if things aren’t going well, but to fall back on that to lessen the idea that mental illness itself isn’t enough of a motivator is dangerous in my opinion. We’ve become so medicated that I think we forget the times when we literally has “insane asylums” where people like Dr. Walter Freeman aka “The Lobotomist” had free reign over people that were essentially wards of the state, left to languish because they were dangerous to themselves and others with no treatment to turn to.

  • give-em-hell-mary

    You’re on the wrong thread and you completely misunderstood my point here anyway.

  • give-em-hell-mary

    I should add that I was very behind in reading skills, in addition to being disfigured, while in grade school, so I sympathize with your school angst.

  • rmouse

    Women shoot up schools too.  Laurie Dann, in Winnetika Illinios.




  • crowepps

    Perhaps it isn’t that important to consider outliers like that, when the vast majority of mass murders of strangers are committed by white males?

  • jennifer-starr

    Yes, Laurie Dann came to my mind too–I remember when that happened. But she is definitely an outlier–mass killings or shootings committed by women are very, very rare.