A 19-year-old gunman* was responsible for the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He left 17 dead and many more victims wounded--both physically and emotionally. This is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while now, but it is not a subject that will reduce in relevance anytime soon.
After the shooting, as after every mass shooting in recent years, debates about mental health funding and gun control abound. But advocates and experts say linking mass shootings to mental illness increases stigma against people who have mental health challenges and erases the need for a debate about the other factors contributing to mass shootings in America. Gun violence is a public health issue, especially since some of the leading factors of mass shootings are domestic violence and toxic masculinity.
In a Feb. 15 Politico article, Ayanna Alexander spoke to mental health advocates about the dangers of linking mental illness to mass shootings:
Domestic violence is, in fact, more of an indicator of mass violence than having a mental health disorder. April Fulton writes for NPR’s Shots that “A large portion of the mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years has roots in domestic violence against partners and family members. Depending on how you count, it could be upwards of 50 percent. … While perpetrators of domestic violence account for only about 10 percent of all gun violence, they accounted for 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016.”
Much of the root of both of these crimes--mass shootings and domestic violence--is toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is defined by the Good Men Project as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits--which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual--are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.”
Jennifer Wright in Bazaar writes that of all the mass shootings since 1982, only three have been perpetrated by women. The reason, she posits, is that we live in a culture that worships men with guns. And men (and boys) with guns are using these deadly weapons as tools of revenge. “In many of these mass shootings, the desire to kill seems to be driven by a catastrophic sense of male entitlement. In some cases, the perpetrators seemed to feel that if people did not give them precisely what they wanted, then those people did not deserve to live,” Wright says. “The only just world, in their minds, was a world they were the center of.”
How we are socializing our boys to become men is a systemic problem that can lead to more mass shootings. No matter what side of the gun violence debate you are on, let’s shake loose this notion of mental illness causing mass shootings. While advocating for more mental health funding is needed, good mental health care won’t eradicate gun violence. But reframing gun violence as a public health problem could lessen the number of shootings in America each year. Let’s advocate against domestic violence and work for systemic change that eradicates toxic masculinity. Let’s also advocate for research on gun violence (to see more about why little research has been done, see this Atlantic article), and get evidence of what other factors exist leading up to mass shootings and how the U.S. can work to limit these factors and prevent such deadly events.
*I am choosing to withhold the shooter's name for reasons listed on this site.