This week, Arissa Hossain examines:
Mass Shootings in the US: Looking beyond labels of the “lone wolf” and “mental illness”
When thinking of countries facing violence and mass civilian casualties, the United States isn’t generally the first to come to mind. However, violence can show up in different forms, and when it comes to gun massacres, the US has more public mass shootings than any other country in the world. Americans also own the most guns per person, with 4 out of 10 on average reporting they own a gun or live in a household with one. Gun culture in the US is distinct; it is a fundamental right to own and bear arms in the Second Amendment of their Constitution. The US is known as the land of the free, the place to pursuit happiness, and ironically, the country with the most mass shootings in the world.
The rise in public shooting incidents have sparked debates over gun laws, with politicians and civilians divided over whether there is a need for stricter gun laws or, paradoxically, more guns as a security measure. The issue has everything to do with gun laws, but could there be other underlying factors at play? Is it really just the access to guns that is behind the spike in gun massacre incidents? People rarely want to address the elephant in the American room, but when the pattern of these shootings is inspected, most have a similar feature in common: majority of the time, the perpetrator is a white male. Out of 95 mass shootings in the US between 1982 and 2017, 92 of the shooters were male and 54 of them white. So what is this ‘elephant’ referring to? – a history of white male supremacy and entitlement.
Often mainstream headlines include the terms “lone wolf” and “mental illness” when referring to white, male gunmen. But how much of an outlier, as the term “lone wolf” seems to suggest, is someone when mass shooting starts to increase and become a disturbing trend? Between 2000 and 2013, annual incidents saw a threefold increase in the US. Instances of shootings at schools, malls, workplaces and places of worship are no longer novel or unheard of. The current social and political climate is highly charged: police brutality against black Americans, anti-immigrant sentiments, Islamophobia, antisemitism and outspoken white supremacists who claim to be empowered by the likes of Trump and Steve Bannon. It is not to say that these issues are new, but rather, they seem to have resurfaced with less restraint and more vigour. In the rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, participants chanted, “You will not replace us” – a testament to the growing conviction and proud expression of white supremacy. Just recently, Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers invoked hatred online against Jews that supported refugees and acted out his sentiments violently in October 2018.
According to criminology professor Scott Bonn from the University of Miami, the recent rise in mass public shootings can, in part, be attributed to racism, other hate crimes , and feelings of powerlessness and rage, to name a few. It shouldn’t be surprising that a history that involved slavery, segregation, and oppression of minorities has a lasting impact on the fabric of the society itself. This is not to accuse Americans of racism, but to simply point out that these issues were never fully eradicated and did not just disappear – they are bound to have some kind of impact and legacy within the society.
After all, it is easy to peg violent outbursts as “lone wolf” incidents or to blame mental illness, as it defers any true accountability or identifying of deeper-rooted social structures and beliefs. It cannot be that mental illness is solely what drives a man to go on a mass murder spree and kill innocent people. After all, statistically 23% of women in the US have a diagnosable mental illness, compared to 16.8% of men, and yet the proportion of men being the perpetrators of these acts is staggering. Mental illness is also a global phenomenon, so why don’t mentally ill men all over the world behave in the same way to, the same extent? Two shootings in Michigan and New Jersey in 1991 both involved men who felt they were owed a job, and there are many other examples with similar descriptions. Loss of a job, being expelled from school, rejection from women and animosity towards an out-group have all been linked to motivations of mass shooters in the US. Additionally, even in cases where the motive is not directly related to rejection from a woman, there’s often a history of sexual or domestic violence. According to Professor David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, the motivation behind a lot of these shootings seems to point towards the fact that men seem to handle catastrophic loss and self esteem worse than women.
Fear, whether it is of a perceived “other”, of one’s own security, of loss of esteem or pride, seems to have an important link to mass public shootings. Although “fear” can sound as if it is justifying and sympathising with the act, it is one of the emotions that comes out of entitlement: you would not fear losing something if you did not feel like you deserved it and had a right over it. This entitlement has everything to do with the white male feeling threat, rejection and loss of control, using violence as an offensive weapon to reinstate his dignity and sense of control. Themes of power and toxic masculinity cannot be separated from these horrifying, aggressive acts of violence, however it leads to an important thought to ponder – it is important we redefine conceptions we have of masculinity, control and “the other”. It is not enough to remain passive to troublesome social structures and value systems. Being pro-active and caring about issues that affect society is crucial if there is to be any kind of change in this pressing moment in history.