Guns, Mental Illness and Violent Masculinity: A Recipe to Kill

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 18:  In this photo illustration a Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle is seen on December 18, 2012 in Miami, Flo
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 18: In this photo illustration a Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle is seen on December 18, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The weapon is similar in style to the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that was used during a massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Firearm sales have surged recently as speculation of stricter gun laws and a re-instatement of the assault weapons ban following the mass shooting. (Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the days separate us from the initial shock and horror of last week's shooting that left 26 dead we have come to learn more about Adam Lanza and the events as they occurred in Newtown, Conn. Most of us will remember where we were, who we were with, or what we were doing when we first heard the initial reports coming out of Sandy Hook Elementary School. If you are like me and have worked in school settings or youth-serving organizations for most of your career, you too, may have been thinking as I have. Namely, there are many boys with whom I've worked over the years who could be described in a similar manner to that of Adam Lanza, but who never took out their rage and anger on others. What made Adam Lanza different? What's happening here?

Interviews with neighbors, family and school personnel who knew Adam Lanza from an early age described him as a kind of quirky, intelligent, socially awkward and loner-type. There is no doubt in my mind that numerous concerns about Adam's behavior and well-being were intimately shared between parents, teachers, and school counselors throughout his formative years in school. These same difficult and awkward conversations take place here in our schools and in schools all across the country. Concerned school social workers, teachers, and school administrators spend hundreds and thousands of hours planning and delivering interventions with the "Adams" of the world -- sometimes with and without the cooperation of parents. I can only imagine the frustration, confusion and despair that the school-based adults in Adam's life must have felt at times -- yet, never coming close to connecting the dots that would link him to killing in cold blood.

When the investigation is complete and the crime motive is laid to rest, it will be a terrible disservice to all of us if Adam Lanza's actions are explained solely as a manifestation of mental illness. While it's typically speculated that all gun-yielding killers suffer from some form of mental illness, all seem to be clearly capable of carrying out intricate and detailed plans of murder. It's not just about mental illness -- it's not that simple -- no demonstration of violence perpetrated by a young man of this magnitude can be. Adam Lanza was a broken young man who grew to know and embrace a kind of violent and deadly form of masculinity that we've seen repeated over and over again. To say the least, there are many layers to the tragic reality of boys and men in our country who choose to express their anger and pain with the end of a loaded, semiautomatic weapon. This needs to stop.

Thanks to pioneers in the study and research on the socialization of boys and violent masculinity like William Pollack, Paul Kivel, Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz, Harry Brod and many others, we know more about the predictors and risk factors leading up to incidents like the one in Newtown than we ever have in modern history. That said, it's time we move beyond awareness and get on to the business of educating, intervening, and implementing policies and practices that will reduce the likelihood of another deadly act of male anger and aggression. A large part of the problem is, and has always been, the vast numbers of men in positions of leadership and influence who remain silent on the issue because they don't know what to say, they're afraid to speak out against dominate gun culture, or they discount violence and aggression as a default of masculinity -- saying it's a part of natural law. The first two are realities and can be addressed over time with education and training, while the latter is an excuse to avoid the obvious. There is nothing natural about the way in which Adam Lanza, Robert Hawkins, Gang Lu, James Holmes, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, to name a few, demonstrated masculinity.

Moreover, experts in the field of violence prevention and criminal studies would point to increased parenting education and pre-school services, accessibility to mental health and positive youth development, and restricting the distribution and heavy consumption of violent video games as meaningful protective factors in the fight against anti-social and violent behaviors. Unfortunately, today even our best professional work and interventions with at-risk boys can struggle to compete against the "steady drip" of traditional expectations and societal influences that contribute to a narrow definition of manhood and masculinity that emphasizes strength over weakness, hate over love, access to guns over civility, and killing over life.

President Obama stated in his press conference last Friday, "... we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics." This will require a comprehensive examination of laws and policies, education, and prevention and would imply that all items and issues are on the table -- no sacred cows -- no one individual or group, public or private, is off the hook. The National Rifle Association, gun manufacturers, legislators, college and professional sports organizations, military leaders, governors, higher education, faith communities, city councils, United Way organizations, mayors, law enforcement, juvenile services, superintendents, school boards, prevention advocates, YMCA's, Boy Scouts, 4-H, Boys' Club, educators, coaches, neighbors, and parents are all stakeholders responsible for contributing resources to solutions. Let's begin by acknowledging and staying focused on the one common thread consistent with all shootings of the past 30-plus years and then work backwards from there. That is, our country has a major problem associating guns with power and control, and associating power and control with being a man.

Gender construction on what it means to be a real, authentic man must be the new curriculum.

If guns aren't being purchased and admired as instruments for hunting, competitive skeet shooting, or artifacts to be studied and examined in the context of military history, then they are most likely viewed by owners as necessary tools for protection, intimidation, and equalizers in time of personal conflict and distress. Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine, broached the topic, but no one describes the misguided aim of men and guns more thoroughly and succinctly than author, activist, and educator, Jackson Katz, in the 1999 groundbreaking education video entitled, Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity. If we're really serious about preventing more tragedies like the one in Newtown, Conn., we should expect to see more men in positions of leadership and power dispelling the myths that it's a sign of weakness to advocate for gun control, and to mentor young boys to appreciate and celebrate their entire, emotional self.

Car makers are accountable to meet certain safety requirements and standards in all the vehicles they manufacture. Tobacco firms are now required to include the warning signs of smoking as well as display explicit pictures depicting the physical consequence of tobacco use. Alcohol labels warn of the consequences of consuming if pregnant. To what extent are gun makers and NRA enthusiasts held responsible for educating the public about their products? While we wait for the outcome of the debate on gun control, is it reasonable to request labels be placed on guns to read:

"This gun is not an extension of your anger and pain."

"Guns are not to be used in conflict resolution."

"This gun does not make you a bigger, stronger, or more-masculine man."

"Pointing a semiautomatic gun at innocent women and children is a sign that you have been failed by society and need help immediately -- stop now and call this hotline."

I think so.