Volume 34, Number 3

Masculinity and the Pathology of Mass Shootings

Ken Poyner

After mass shootings like the one in the Texas Outlet Mall, everyone lines up on one side or the other: it is the guns, or it is mental health. Both are shortsighted approaches.

You have a fellow, like many fellows, who is socially and romantically inept. He is frustrated and angry.

He finds, either directly or virtually, a collective that is as frustrated as he is, and who have a way of shirking any responsibility for their situation. They blame women or Jews or Muslins or Blacks or Latinos or Space Aliens. It does not matter. Bottom line: it is not the frustrated inept fellow who is responsible for his lack of success, it is this third party that somehow is magically holding him back.

The society in which he lives reveres the assault weapon as a symbol of masculinity. At the same time, public figures in all manner of public discourse embrace grievance, anger, bullying, name-calling, fantasies of retribution and revenge. It becomes, if not an acceptable character of discourse, at least a common one. This validates blaming his shortfalls on any number of other sects or persons or processes.

To reclaim his busted masculinity, he buys into the fantasy that he has been displaced by the enmity of some group that, by and large, is faceless to him. He receives both the social connection he craves and an excuse for his failures from the hatreds of the group of similarly failed individuals he has forged allegiance with.

He seeks the assault weapon he has been told will restore his manhood.

Once so primed, to prove to himself the reality of the fantasized cause for his ruination, he must act.
Throw all these pieces together, shake the bag, and time and again mass slaughter will come out. It is more a mathematics than a tragic happenstance.

If you want to call it mental illness, fine. But more likely I would call it social dystopia. They are not crazy, they are simply ill-equipped to fit in, to accomplish social and romantic success and are unwilling to look at themselves as perhaps the piece of the puzzle that needs to change. Instead, they build an elaborate fantasy around their failure and then rely on the assault weapon to be the machinery by which they take their revenge.

There is no doubt that the licentious availability of assault weapons encourages this progression: both worship of the gun as a manly expression of mastery and the ease of acquiring an assault weapon. Something about our social interactions create these inept and frustrated individuals, and then we make available to them what they see as the means for both proving their metal and taking revenge on their oppressors. We have to look at the entire causal chain to understand how to stamp it out.