Aside from the obvious deadly use of guns, the one thing America’s mass shootings have in common is toxic masculinity. From reacting abusively to spurned advances and rejections, to full-fledged physical and sexual violence, the vast majority of mass shooters in the United States are white males who had previously demonstrated a pattern of violent or abusive behavior toward women or girls.
In February, journalist Melissa Jeltsen wrote in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post: “The men who commit mass-casualty atrocities are almost unfailingly abusers, empowered by easily accessible firearms that lend them the exhilarating feeling of control that they so desperately desire. They leave behind a trail of hurt women: mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives. They are angry, aggrieved, resentful and driven by a sense of entitlement. They deserved the girl or the promotion or the apartment. If they fail ― in school, in their professional pursuits, in their romantic encounters ― it is because the odds were unfairly stacked against them. Someone, perhaps everyone, wronged them. They are the victim; everyone else must pay. This is the abuser mentality. And when abusers have guns, women die.”
Most men who own or have access to guns never use them to kill people, and most people who struggle with mental illness never harm anyone with a gun or otherwise. But there is an undeniable connection in this country between entitled white males, the glorification of violence by males, and the use of guns to carry out that violence. Weaved throughout this connection is the proliferation of a culture of toxic masculinity that enables it all. It’s up to us to fix it, but we have to dig deeper. We have to be willing to finally prioritize primary prevention.
The primary prevention of sexual and intimate partner violence is not a flashy topic that gains widespread attention beyond the field in which OAESV and our sister coalitions and partners work. It’s not something that earns a great deal of air time or funding to implement. Even in the era of #MeToo, when unprecedented attention is being paid to the epidemic of sexual harassment and rape, not much is (yet) being widely discussed or proffered in terms of prevention. In our loud, fast-paced, media-driven society, it’s no wonder that the consistency and long-term work that prevention requires gets left behind in the digital dust. And when white male entitlement enjoys power in all echelons of society, it’s no wonder that efforts to address abuses of it are quickly dismissed. Meanwhile, our children are suffering and the body count continues to rise.
What is primary prevention? It’s a thoughtful and consistent approach to violence prevention that includes developing the attitudes, knowledge, skills, behaviors, and resources necessary to promote individual and community health and safety. These approaches are employed before any violence has occurred, and includes building an environment that encourages well-being and healthy choices. Primary prevention is targeted towards individuals, their peers, the community at large, and via public policy. Primary prevention promotes a cultural shift in which all forms of oppression or violence are no longer tolerated.
Preventing mass shootings, domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment begins by preventing child abuse and neglect at the earliest ages, and it continues by prioritizing the safety, support, and education of children and youth in understanding, internalizing, and acting out authentic respect and consent. We cannot make our teenagers watch a 30-minute video and expect that past trauma they’ve suffered will simply evaporate, that their current struggles at home or at school will instantly be alleviated, or that they will suddenly grasp what it means to respect the worth and boundaries of their peers and themselves. This kind of work requires ongoing effort and dedication on multiple fronts, in multiple ways, by everyone, throughout the life of every child.
It’s important that we continue to debate access to guns and discuss the ways in which guns, violence, and masculinity are intimately linked. While we’re having these discussions, let’s not neglect the children (boys and girls) in front of us right now. Let’s teach them what healthy masculinity means and how to exercise it. Let’s show them what healthy masculinity, respect, and consent look like by modeling it for them. Let’s dare to think about and talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and how these are interconnected with white male entitlement and abuse of power. Let’s prioritize the primary prevention of violence and abuse in all its forms, wherever we find ourselves – at statehouses, school board meetings, company meetings, sports teams, community groups, churches, Bible studies, book clubs, social media, and our homes. Let’s hold our leaders at every level accountable. Let’s hold ourselves accountable.
Yes, this is asking a lot, but aren’t our children worth it?