Throughout history, gun violence has been caused predominantly by males.
Gloria Steinem once said, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons … but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” This resonates with me almost daily when I see men and boys displaying what might be considered “gender-appropriate behaviors” such as physical strength, competitiveness and hiding their emotions and affections. Many boys are still imprinted with what being a “real man” means, and it’s not about being polite, nurturing or comfortable with their emotions. As “evolved” as we have become as a society, gender roles seem to be lagging behind.
Beyond the already stigmatizing emphasis on traditional gender-appropriate behaviors—and the harmful ideals of narrowly characterized masculinity—come the dangers of hyper or toxic masculinity. A study published in the 2019 Journal of School Psychology defines toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive [masculine] traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.” In short, sexual conquests of a heterosexual nature are the cornerstones of this perverted ideal of manliness.
“If your identity is wrapped up in your masculinity and what it is to ‘be a man,’ then there are also things that are definitely not being a man,” explains Kevin Hertzog, co-founder of Gays Against Guns, an activist organization that puts pressure on the gun industry. “For instance, for many men growing up, masculinity is often defined by strength, courage, sexual prowess and dominance, while for most women, it is characteristics like caring and loving, nurturing and coalition building. Men aren’t allowed to have themselves perceived that way at risk of appearing feminine.”
Toxic masculinity can manifest itself in many ways, from promiscuity to sexual aggression, aggressive bullying to violent crimes. For some reason, the term is often dismissed as a buzzword, an elitist invention or as simply inaccurate. Violence and aggression can, of course, be demonstrated in both male and female-identifying individuals; however, tracking gender-related data pertaining to rape, violent crime and mass shootings tells a chilling story.
- Rape: According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 91 percent of rape and sexual assault victims are female, and nearly 99 percent of the offenders they described in single-victim incidents were male.
- Violent Crime: In an abstract titled “Men, women, and murder: gender-specific differences in rates of fatal violence and victimization,” researchers concluded that while women comprise more than half the U.S. population, they commit only 14.7 percent of the country’s homicides.
- Mass Shootings: A stunning 98 percent of these crimes have been committed by men, according to The Violence Project.
The numbers are not even close. Men play the dominant role as violent offenders in America. Additionally, 60 percent of mass shooters have a history of domestic violence. The law even recognizes that intimate partner violence is a red flag for predicting future violent behavior and in theory should prevent weapons from being sold to those offenders. All too often, these red flags are ignored or not enforced. A convicted domestic abuser should not be able to buy a gun from a licensed firearms dealer, but in 32 states, private individuals can sell weapons without having to conduct a background check.
Hertzog founded Gays Against Guns after the devastating mass shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016, when 29-year-old Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 more with a semi-automatic rifle inside Pulse, a prominent gay nightclub. “The group was a direct response to the fact that we felt that we had been attacked,” he says. “Everyone in the LGBTQ community had been attacked to a certain extent because when you’re growing up and you realize that you’re different from other people, you seek out spaces that are safe for you. And the place that is the safest for many of us is a club, a gay club, or a gay bar. In these gay spaces, we feel the most at liberty to express ourselves and to let down our guard. And so, the fact that someone was able to breach that barrier of safety for us resonated with so many people in the community.”
The group stands “loud and proud,” organizing marches, rallies, boycotts and art events to remind everyone of the death toll too many have witnessed from gun violence. “The very name of our group is an attack against their culture,” Hertzog says. “You know, we’re gays against guns. It’s a provocative name because when you’re following the rules of toxic masculinity, you don’t even admit that you’re gay and you certainly would never be against guns because guns are your friend. So, we’re just, from the very outset, saying, ‘No, we’re pushing back.’ That’s the tack that we’ve taken since day one.”
Hertzog sees the way young boys are raised, in this fiction of machismo, in combination with weapons being so readily available in America as the reason gun violence deaths are so staggering in the United States. He references Japanese society, where they have some of the strictest gun laws in the world. The National Police Agency of Japan announced that in 2017 there were only 22 shooting crimes throughout the country. In contrast, the Gun Violence Archive reported 15,612 gun-related deaths in the United States in 2017.
In Japan, mass shootings are so rare that the last documented massacre was decades ago. In a statement by the Consulate General of Japan in New York, they say, “According to a source related to the Government of Japan, there have not been mass shootings (killing of more than four persons by gun) for decades in Japan.” Meanwhile in the United States, in 2019 alone, there were 417 mass shootings, which resulted in 517 deaths and 1,643 injuries, for a total of 2,160 victims, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The statistics speak volumes; access does matter.
When access is virtually unfettered, as it is in the United States, men take these easy-access weapons—often weapons of war—and unleash them in rage at innocent victims. If we can face these truths and get to the root of this toxic masculinity, then maybe we can reduce the number of massacres in this country. Maybe by doing so, we will find the strength to raise our sons more like our daughters.