Stop Looking For A Single Reason Men Commit Public Shootings

The scary truth behind American gun violence? It's on all of us.
Amy DeVoogd via Getty Images

Shock. Horror. Debate. Exasperation. Ignore. Repeat. This is the cycle we go through each and every time a public, violent tragedy strikes.

December 14, 2012 was supposed to be a good day. The Huffington Post's yearly holiday party was that evening, and most of the office arrived at work in the morning thinking more about free food and booze than what news we'd cover that day. Then, at around 9:35 a.m., Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and slaughtered six adults and 20 children before turning a gun on himself.

It was a devastating thing to witness and cover, even from miles away in a crowded, safe newsroom. The pain among my colleagues was palpable as we all sought details about who Lanza was, how he came to murder first-graders and why. The "why" was most haunting.

Unfortunately, we've asked "why?" more times than I can remember off the top of my head during the four years I've worked at HuffPost.

We asked "why?" when Wade Michael Page shot up a Sikh temple.

We asked "why?" when James Holmes opened fire on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

We asked "why?" when Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree near UC-Santa Barbara.

We asked "why?" when Dylann Roof murdered parishioners in cold blood at a church in Charleston.

We asked "why?" when John Russell Houser opened fire on the audience of "Trainwreck" in Lafayette.

Yesterday we, yet again, asked "why?" when a man killed two of his former coworkers, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, on live television.

The reality that mass gun violence has become a cornerstone of American culture feels inconceivable.

It makes sense why we focus on the why -- and hope for an easy answer. We grapple with this question, especially in cases of public violence and tragedy, because without a clear answer, the reality that mass gun violence has become a cornerstone of American culture feels inconceivable. We want someone or something to blame, because the idea that we could be complicit in fueling a society that hasn't gone more than eight days without a mass shooting in 2015 is completely terrifying.

Plus, the real "why" is complicated, not easily solved with one new law or by writing off each shooter as an isolated, mentally ill madman, or the rallying cry of "guns don't kill people, people kill people."

"Why" involves our cultural ideas about masculinity and what makes a "real" or "good" or "worthy" man. Mass murderers are nearly always (white) men. Men who feel wronged -- either by society or their colleagues or their classmates or their ex-lovers or all of the above. It's about the entitlement to success, women's bodies and attention men have been taught they deserve.

As Josie Duffy wrote at Gawker of WDBJ shooter Vester Flanagan: "This guy reminds me of many other men who kill -- off the top of my head I can think of at least five mass murders where the killer was fired from a job, dumped by a girlfriend, or rejected. Ending lives essentially because they didn’t feel like they were getting what they deserve. Entitlement."

We are stuck in a vicious cycle of unfathomable violence, and if we don't start implicating ourselves, we may never escape.

It's often about institutional racism. "It must be acknowledged that there are more Dylann Roofs out there, and they exist because we let them," wrote HuffPost's Zeba Blay after the Charleston shooting.

In the wake of the UCSB shooting in 2014, Tiffany Xie took a closer look at the research on similar public massacres -- specifically at the pattern of white, middle-class men as the people most often behind the gun. "This 'suicide-by-mass-murder' is a reflection of a combination of both White and male privilege," she wrote, "the ideology that White males have social, economic, and political advantages granted to them solely on the basis of their sex and race." Flanagan was not a white, straight man. But, unfortunately, men of color are not exempt from misogyny -- it just plays out differently for them.

It involves easy access to firearms, a conversation we seem doomed to put off indefinitely, as it's never "the right time" to discuss it. As though grieving parents who spend their mourning days going on television to plead with the American public and politicians to do something are just "pushing an agenda."

Searching for a "why" brings up important conversations about mental illness treatment -- greater access to health care is always a good thing! -- but it also encourages us to scapegoat mental illness, when mentally ill individuals are far more likely to be the victims of crimes than commit them.

We seek to distance ourselves from those that commit these horrors. We aren't "crazy." We use guns responsibly and it's our right to carry them. We couldn't possibly raise a son or befriend a man who sees those guns as his public way out, taking others -- often women and children -- with him in a blaze of media coverage.

We need to start having those uncomfortable conversations, about racism and toxic masculinity and health care and gun control, and making real change to back our words up. We are stuck in a vicious cycle of unfathomable violence, and if we don't start implicating ourselves, we may never escape.
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