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Men and Mass Shootings

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On Friday morning, we woke up to the horrible news that a gunman had opened fire during a midnight movie in a Colorado theatre. By mid-morning, a suspect had been named: James Holmes. A man.

He joins a dubious list: Jared Lee Loughner (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), Major Midal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood), Seung-Hio Cho (Virginia Tech), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine). Male, all of them. In fact, almost all mass killers have been male.

Federal statistics tell us that about 90 percent of homicides are committed by men. And about 75 percent of homicide victims are men.

I want to be clear: most men are not killers, even though most killers are men. Killers are a very small percentage of the population.

Statistically, being male "increases the odds" that an individual could become a killer (or a victim, for that matter). I think some of our cultural expectations for boys and men contribute to this change in the odds. They're not the only things, but as the TV detectives say, they're an important part of the killer's profile.

We teach men to do, to act, to solve problems. It's not enough to identify the problem; a guy should do something about it.

We teach men to not ask for help. Men who need help -- whether it's an "obvious" problem or something that he should be able to handle by himself or even just help on a regular basis - are told to "man up." Coupled with our encouragement to act, this means that when a guy only has one solution, he's going to try it -- even if it's not a good solution.

We teach men they should not express their feelings. "Boys don't cry," we tell them. That doesn't prevent men from having these feelings; it just encourages them to minimize or ignore them. Because they're not supposed to ask for help, most guys don't have much experience working through their feelings. Although a guy might be able to cry on a woman's shoulder, he's probably crying in his beer with his male friends.

We teach men that violence is a viable solution to problems. That's the message behind expressions like "let's go outside and settle this like men." It's one of the messages that's transmitted in all those action movies: violence is an acceptable way to respond to a threat, even if your own violence isn't strictly legal. If you've seen the video Seung-Hio Cho recorded before he went on his rampage, he's posing like some of those movie characters.

On Friday afternoon, we know very little about James Holmes, the Colorado shooting suspect. But we do know a fair amount about those other boys and men who've been accused and convicted of these kinds of shootings.

In one way or another, they all felt like there was an ongoing problem that couldn't be solved. Maybe they didn't ask for help with their problems, or maybe they asked once or twice, but there was no help to be had. Initially, they were probably sad or hurt, the result of being picked on, ostracized, or abandoned by someone who was important to them. When the situation didn't change and those feelings didn't go away, and when other people stopped listening even though the guys were (still) sad, those feelings turned to resentment and then anger. Anger can be energizing, and anger often leads to violence. From there, it's a straightforward line to action, and that action can be quite violent.

In almost every case, the killer thought about what he'd do for weeks, if not months. Immediately prior to the shooting, the killer spends an hour or so getting ready: checking weapons, putting on protective gear, going to the site, making any last minute adjustments, etc. The shootings are rarely impulsive, spontaneous, never-thought-about-it-before decisions.

If we're serious about preventing these mass shootings from continuing to happen, we can change the odds by changing some of the messages we give to boys and men. We need to start accepting that boys and men are human beings, not automatons who know it all and can always control their feelings and act rationally. We need to start telling boys and men it's ok to ask for help and to provide them with ways to express their sadness. And when they take us up on those offers and ask for help or share their feelings, we need to accept them for who they are and what they're going through, and not shame them for not being "man enough."