After news broke that an armed student shot and killed nine people on the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, people across the state and the nation reacted first with shock, then sadness, and later, took to the internet to share their theories about how to stop the tragedies that have become so common, we've started recycling the same old parody piece from The Onion with the on point headline: "'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens."
Almost as predictable as the next mass/school shooting is the discourse (if we're being polite) that follows. Invariably, the debate over why the killer did it ricochets between two popular scapegoats: guns and mental healthcare. Specifically, the ease of access to one, and the challenge in obtaining the other. If the shooter hadn't had access to guns, no one would have died, says one camp. If only someone had recognized the signs of mental illness sooner, the suspect wouldn't have snapped, cries the other. And yet, despite the fact that these debates have become a seemingly annual part of the public conversation, the rate at which mass shootings occur shows no signs of slowing.
What are we missing? If we could make meaningful traction on gun reform and access to mental health services that would certainly help, but neither is a cure-all because neither addresses the root cause of the violence. As opponents of both arguments point out, the majority of lawful gun owners and people with mental illnesses are law abiding and non-violent.
The root cause that few seem to want to discuss is a culture that teaches young (typically white) men that they are owed something and that, if it isn't given to them, they are justified in exerting power and control over others to get it.
A piece that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor following the UCC shooting hits the nail on the head, citing a "warped view of masculinity" as the most meaningful quality shared by mass shooters. The authors talk to Tristan Bridges, a sociologist at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, who explains that while we are tempted to think of mass shooters as atypical or strange, they are actually overdosing on toxic masculinity.
"They're over-conforming to masculinity, because they perceive themselves, in some way or another, as emasculated," Bridges tells the Monitor, citing expert Michael Kimmel's research on masculinity. "It's a terrible statement about American masculinity, to say that when you're emasculated, one way to respond is to open fire."
But this impulse is not found only in the still relatively uncommon mass shooter. It's also present in a far more frequent and sometimes fatal crime—domestic violence. Yes, it's true that the family members of abusers are safer if the batterer can't get a gun. And abusive partners often hold beliefs many would consider signs of mental illness. But domestic violence, which is most often perpetrated by men, has more to do with exerting power and control over others in pursuit of a perceived entitlement.
While the motives for so awful a crime are rarely simple, and time will no doubt reveal illuminating details about the UCC killer, it's time we stopped treating these young men as isolated cases, freaks of nature, or embodiments of evil. Instead, it's time we own up to the fact that we, as a culture, made them. And it's up to us, collectively, to break the cycle.