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The Culture of the Gun

Until we address ‘toxic masculinity,’ Newtowns will continue to happen.

Last week’s Newtown, Conn., murders leave us struggling with shock and horror. How can we respond to a mind-numbing assault in which 20 schoolchildren and six educators died before shooter Adam Lanza took his own life?

That a brutal act of such unimaginable scale could have happened in a place where children are supposed to be safe — a place that had taken every prudent step officials could to keep its kids safe — leaves us in despair. Without clear answers, we begin the inevitable argument over ways that we might prevent such a bloodbath in the future.

Gun-control advocates say the Newtown murders might have been prevented with stronger regulation of handguns and rifles such as those that Lanza is said to have used. Mental-health advocates say the shootings show the need for greater screening and treatment of mental illnesses and neurological conditions.

Gun-rights supporters respond that teachers and administrators should be trained to carry and use firearms in the schools. “If people were armed, not just a police officer, but other school officials that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop an individual trying to get into the school,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, in remarks reported this week by the Huffington Post.

That such ideas weren’t immediately dismissed as ridiculous shows how far America is from the rest of the world when it comes to its relationship with the gun.

We can’t respond to gun violence merely as a policy challenge or by giving teachers guns, because it’s a cultural problem.

To be clear, gun violence is not only a male problem. Women commit gun violence, but almost all of the most spectacular crimes are committed by men. Of the 62 American mass murders involving guns since 1983, according to Mother Jones magazine, 61 have been committed by men.

For many of these men, the gun is much more than a tool of self and family defense. Spurred on by messages in media, advertising and popular culture, the gun has become an ideology onto itself — a symbol of independence, power, control and manliness.

Gunmakers know this. Their marketing is aimed at the desires of their customers to control their world with a gun. Bushmaster, the maker of the rifle that Lanza allegedly carried into Sandy Hook Elementary School last week, recently promoted itself in Maxim with the tagline: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” Ads for Savage Arms boast its rifle will produce “One Shot, One Kill.”

These messages appeal to men who perceive an increasingly hostile world and in which the social contract has little appeal. The rise of the information economy and the growing influence and power of women has created a society that values the “soft skills” of empathy, collaboration and communication. For many men on the losing end of this transformation, guns give them a chance to retain their sense of individuality, control and manliness.

Journalist Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, argues that men are struggling to redefine themselves in such a world. The response, she writes, is that many men double down on their masculinity with “mancessories — jeans and pickup trucks and designer switchblades, superheroes and thugs who rant and rave on TV and, at the end of the season, fade back into obscurity.” It’s not a huge leap to add Glocks, Bushmasters and Sig Sauers to her list.

Conservatives are correct when they say that tougher gun laws won’t solve the problem of mass violence. Neither will better mental-health systems. Not by themselves.

Combining tougher gun laws with better mental-health systems and a serious conversation of 21st Century masculinity and the ideology of gun ownership and use will begin to get us somewhere.

Until we have that conversation, it’s only a matter of time before the shocked parents, police, news crews and nation descend on the next Newtown.

Brian Steffen is professor and chair of Communication & Media Studies at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.

One thought on “The Culture of the Gun

  1. I am reminded by this compelling article of a man in a church I once served as pastor who was clearly having masculinity issues. Admirably, he was trying to deal with a self-confessed addiction by going to AA meetings but told me that AA is nothing but a homosexual meeting place and that he was always being hit on by other men at meetings. He invited me once to his home and showed me his new motorcycle, a brand-new customized Harley that he claimed was the biggest the company made. He purchased this enormous bike despite having never ridden a motorcycle and having only a motorcycle learner’s permit. He then went on to tell me that his next purchase was a handgun and that his dream was to ride across the country with his Harley and gun and somehow assert his manhood. He asked if he could list me as a personal reference on his gun license application. I said no. It may be germane to note that he was unemployed, his wife’s the only family income and, by his own admission, the motorcycle purchased with a recent inheritance from her family.
    While his case is extreme with possible roots in addiction and mental illness, it is nonetheless illustrative of the insidious and entrenched forces Mr. Steffan holds up.

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