We don't need to talk about mental health after the Texas shooting. We need to talk about toxic masculinity

In one recent advertisement, a semi-automatic rifle was sold to potential buyers with the tag-line: 'Consider your man pass reissued'

Carli Pierson
Tuesday 03 September 2019 23:06
Trump is a great example of toxic masculinity; and a great example of someone who is being completely ineffective on gun control
Trump is a great example of toxic masculinity; and a great example of someone who is being completely ineffective on gun control

After the Odessa, Texas shooter’s killing spree that left seven dead and 22 injured on Saturday, including a toddler who was shot in the face, Trump announced to White House reporters that the violence was the result of “a mental thing”, that background checks wouldn’t do anything to decrease gun violence and that the shooter was merely “another sick person”.

I paused momentarily to consider those comments. Is it possible that Americans are suffering from a special form of mental illness, unique to this country, that leads its sufferers to buy military-grade assault rifles and proceed to shoot as many people as possible everywhere from kindergartens to movie theatres to highways?

Can we factually and scientifically attribute mass violence to mental illness or “true evil”, whatever that may be? Or is it something more unexceptional than either of those two options? Holocaust survivors know the answer. Survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda know the answer. Survivors of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica know as well, and so do many other victims of mass violence.

Mental health is a historical cop-out – the president and his acolytes can’t plead insanity over the raging gun violence in America any more. The Odessa killer, like those before him, had a toxic masculinity problem and easy access to guns – a situation unique to this country when compared to its counterparts in the developed world.

So, what is toxic masculinity and is it a problem specific to the US? The Good Men Project describes toxic masculinity as a “manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression… the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.”

A well-known example of a man with toxic masculinity problems, to my mind, is the president of the US: his history of misogynistic comments and his deliberately emasculating comments about men who oppose or disagree with him is a prime example of toxic masculinity for the world to reflect on. How embarrassing.

And toxic masculinity is far from a solely American problem. In France, for instance, the conversation is being had right now with regard to domestic violence. What is unique about the US, however, is our free promotion appealing to notions of toxic masculinity in advertising. Gun advertisers and the NRA have been playing on definitions of manhood as linked to violence for decades, building a momentum that, in part, is responsible for where we are today. What’s worse, our elected representatives have been on board the whole time. Just look at how Congress has refused to regulate not only the sale, but also the advertisement of firearms – appealing to dysfunctional notions of masculinity as defined by physical power over others and violence.

Take, for example, a 2010 ad by the company Bushmaster. In the advertisement, the .223 semi-automatic rifle is sold to potential buyers with the words: “Consider your man card reissued”. Adam Lanza would buy this same rifle just two years later to murder 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Unfortunately, the only reason we are not talking about the gun violence problem in America as an issue of domestic terrorism is because the killers are, by and large, white, Christian men rather than non-white Muslim men – which also makes it a racial and religious identity issue. While white men dominate firearm suicide victims (74 per cent), black men are the majority of gun homicide victims. Black Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white Americans. Things have never been “separate but equal” in this country.

Gun violence also disproportionality affects women in the US, who are 21 per cent more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries. As someone who has worked closely with victims of domestic violence, I can assure you that “mental health” is usually not the main factor where deadly weapons are concerned. One victim’s partner threatened her and her children with his Glock, holding them hostage in their apartment for hours, he made sure to leave no physical marks on her body so that, when she was able to finally get away and call the police, it would be her word against his. This abuser wasn’t mentally ill, nor were any other batterers I encountered during my time working in domestic violence advocacy.

There are lots of countries where there is widespread domestic violence and quite clearly a problem with toxic masculinity, but they don’t have massive gun rampages in public spaces like we do in the US. In fact, the US has the 28th highest death rate from gun violence in the world, and it's remarkably higher than other developed countries. America’s toxic masculinity problem paired with its overly lax gun laws is what makes the gun violence epidemic here so horrific, so widespread and so unique. Anyone of age can walk into a local store, pick up a semi-automatic rifle and drive home to terrorize their family, their co-workers, random strangers or anyone at anytime, anywhere.

While Walmart’s CEO announced today that it will no longer sell handguns and certain types of ammunition, we cannot expect the majority of stores that sell guns to follow. It is up to Congress to crack down on the sale and advertisement of firearms, something unlikely to happen during this administration and given the Republican majority in the Senate. Republicans like Rep. Matt Schaefer of Texas continue to argue that it’s a “God-given right” to own guns and that these all too common killers are mentally unstable – such comments have cost thousands of Americans their lives to date.

How many people have to be murdered before our Congress decides to take real action to save American lives instead of offering meaningless “thoughts and prayers” and chalking up mass gun violence to mental health, when that’s clearly not the problem? I guess we haven’t reached the number yet.

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