Standing Up to Gun Violence

There have been more mass shootings in 2019 than there have been days in the year to date. As of August 4, 2019 that maps to 253 mass shootings 216 days into the year. In the wake of the most recent shootings (Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, within 7 days), we have already heard the inevitable apologists for the gun lobby with their versions of the tired excuse that guns don’t kill people - someone has to pull the trigger. President Trump, in his belated response to the shootings on Monday, August 5, cited mental illness, hate, racism, white supremacism and video games - everything but guns and his own complicity in inciting race-based and ethnicity-based violence, plus he offered “May God bless the memory of those who perished in Toledo”.

As part of classes I take in suicide prevention, a recent class focused on the importance of removing access to means (guns, drugs, sharp objects) from the suicidal person. 

The latest wave of mass shootings brought this to mind. In our work at Inclusionary Leadership Group and at the Better Man Conference, we confront the impact of toxic masculinity every day - sexual violence, assault, rape, even murder - and so my natural first thought was that these shootings were another instance of what our work is designed to ameliorate. But then I realized that access to means is a critical part of the equation.

It is, at this point, an overused trope to talk about the NRA’s ability to block any meaningful form of gun control - even background checks, which are favored by 87% of the US population - but overuse doesn’t mean it’s not valid. 

All three of the recent shooters used AK-47-like automatic assault weapons, which have no legitimate civilian use. No one hunts with an automatic assault weapon - most would consider it unsporting at best. Whatever your feelings about hunting animals for sport, the culture of hunting has always given the prey a chance of escape, which automatic weapons don’t allow. Yet the NRA and its supporters in the House and Senate will fight to the death for the right to own any sort of weapon regardless of its use.

The facts are simple. The NRA has bought enough of our Senators and Representatives to maintain its agenda regardless of what any of their constituents want, and until that stranglehold is broken, weapons of mass murder will continue to be available.

Murder requires three things: means, motive, and opportunity. Means abound, as do opportunities. Schools, festivals, stores and malls, night clubs, city streets are just a few places where shooters can find ample opportunity, and will remain so. Reducing or removing access to means seems like a no-brainer step toward a solution that is blocked by the NRA and its lackeys. That leaves motive.

As has been noted extensively, mass shooters are overwhelmingly white men aged 11-73 but most often between 20 - 30 years old- the same demographic that is at the highest risk for suicide, which may or may not be relevant. Also to the extent that mass shooters have a political bent, the pattern emerging shows them as right-wing, and often white supremacists with the online presence and manifestos as proof. Many believe as I do that the roots of the white supremacist mindset  can be traced directly to toxic masculinity.

Specifically, Sonya Renee Taylor, an  author, poet, humanitarian and social justice activist, lays the blame for toxic masculinity on an absence of self-regard (what she calls radical self love) and an orientation toward finding value in externalities, particularly power over to compensate for a lack of power within. The default culture of masculinity robs men of any sense of inherent value and inculcates them with the false notion that their value comes from outside - money, job status, educational status, sex, domination, and possessions. A report by the Catalyst organization in 2009  found four predominant masculine norms that are emphasized to varying degrees in Western cultures:

o Avoid association with all things feminine 

o Be a winner

o Show no vulnerability

o Be a man’s man (a.k.a. be one of the boys)

All four of these focus attention externally as Taylor asserts.

Removing access to the means of mass murder, particularly automatic weapons, will not stop violence, but it will be an important step toward doing so. Ultimately we must confront the root of the problem which is, we believe, motivation that stems from outdated, toxic norms of masculinity. Men must work against the forces of inequity and violence while availing themselves as allies to those targeted by racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the “isms” that currently define American society. Our framework for working with men is the Ally’s Journey(™):

Step 1: Recognize and admit that, through no fault of my own, I have unconscious biases and I am the beneficiary of unearned privilege.

Step 2: Learn about and own the impact of my bias and privilege on those around me, and clean up the impact where needed (clean up = acknowledge the impact and commit to changing my behavior)

Step 3: Learn to listen to others with empathy and compassion; learn to have compassion for myself and cultivate self-value.

Step 4: Commit to new actions and behaviors and to confronting toxic behaviors when I encounter them.

For men (and women) to commit to these steps requires enormous courage - the courage to speak out against and be anti- toxic norms based in bias and privilege - and the greater difficulty of confronting their own unwitting complicity and unintended damage, often toward those they care most about and in violation of their own integrity and values.

The roots of violence are societal and systemic. The only way to confront a systemic issue is, in the words of Scots town planner and social activist Patrick Geddes, to “think global and act local.”

“Never doubt that a thoughtful group of committed citizens can change the world, for indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

By Ed Gurowitz, PhD and Kriz Bell

Kriz Bell