There’s something distinctly American about the landscape of the theater: In its gluttonous splendor, it functions as both coliseum and megachurch, bringing together the masses to worship one of the most sacred of American religions—the cinema. But last Thursday, a theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, was home to one of America’s other, much darker traditions: mass gun violence.
The gunman, John Russell Houser, fired his .40-caliber handgun into the audience, killing two women: Mayci Breaux, a 21-year-old student at Louisiana State University at Eunice, and Jillian Johnson, described “as one of Lafayette’s most creative minds—an artist, musician, business owner, wife, mother, and friend.” This was Louisiana’s eighth mass shooting in a year marked by bloodshed, whether by police or civilian. As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote last Friday, “[T]his year there were 18 mass shootings in April, 39 in May, 41 in June, and 34 so far in July—and the month isn't over yet.”
If this is a troubling pattern, what’s just as disheartening is our tendency to mark these tragedies as nothing but “senseless” acts. In the past week, this has been all but the dominant theme of news coverage and Twitter commentary on the Lafayette shooting, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal telling the Today show that “there's never a reason for these senseless acts of violence.” The “senseless tragedy” meme made its way into coverage on MSNBC, CNN, and the Guardian; even the CEO of Universal Pictures fell back on the phrase in a statement expressing his condolences to the victims and their families.
But there’s little that’s senseless about John Russell Houser’s actions. While news coverage pegged him as a “killer without a cause” and a “drifter,” Houser was well-known for his rabidly anti-feminist views. According to former radio host Calvin Floyd, Houser’s extremism made him a perfect guest—and he had Houser on frequently. Floyd told the Washington Post, “He was anti-abortion. The best I can recall. Rusty had an issue with feminine rights. He was opposed to women having a say in anything.”
Even more alarming was the way his opinions on women’s rights colored his interactions with the opposite sex, as Houser had a history of domestic violence. In 2008, Houser’s wife and daughter filed restraining orders against him, alleging “extreme erratic behavior” and that he “perpetrated acts of family violence.” His wife was so afraid of him that she had all the guns removed from their home.
While Houser’s reported bipolar disorder should be noted, what’s just as notable here is the crowd he was firing into: a showing for the Amy Schumer movieTrainwreck. Schumer’s very popular viral videos from her TV show have earned her the label of a “feminist icon” and a “full-blown activist for gender equality.” (You may disagree.) What’s then senseless about a man with a record of violence against women and who has publicly espoused misogynistic views—on the radio, no less—who shoots up a movie theater that’s screening a movie starring a feminist icon and written by a feminist icon in an audience that was predominantly women? Nothing.
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Unfortunately, Houser took his own life before he could be taken into custody, so it’s impossible to know for sure what was going through his mind. Half of everyone reading this article is saying to themselves, “Hey, you silly feminazi! You can’t prove that!” But a lack of initial evidence didn’t stop the Chattanooga shooter, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, from quickly being labeled a terrorist because of his Muslim heritage, ascribing a clear, fundamentalist motive to his crimes. However, we’re unwilling to make the same leap to suggest that maybe John Russell Houser’s actions weren’t so “senseless” after all.
While this might be due to a perceived pattern of Muslim terrorism in the U.S., Islamic extremism is a far less dangerous threat than our own homegrown epidemic—violence against women. As my Daily Dot colleague Amanda Marcottepointed out in an editorial for Slate, “men kill women in the U.S. so often that it’s usually not even newsworthy.” The Huffington Post Alanna Vagianos furtherspells out the gruesome statistics: “The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners during that time was11,766.”
If 11,766 seems like a lot to you, how many people—both men and women—do you think have been killed by Islamic extremism since September 11? 1,000? 6,000? Nope, just 26 people, less than the number of homegrown white shooters and not even .01 percent of the number of women who were killed due to domestic partner abuse. That discrepancy might be shocking, but it shouldn’t be. As good as America is at raising homegrown terrorists, we’re particularly good at raising men who target women. From Ted Bundy to Elliot Rodger, misogyny kills.
The Rodger case shed particular light on how problematic views of women can be a motivator for mass violence. While Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) called the Isla Vista shootings a “senseless tragedy,” that hardly fits the definition of the word “done or happening for no reason” and more likely means “happening for no reason we’d like to discuss.” Active in men’s rights andpick-up artist forums, Elliot Rodger left a remarkably long trail of misogyny online.
In a final video message, he explained that his actions would show he was “the true alpha male.” Detailing a lifetime of “loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me,” he bemoaned that he had been through college and was still a virgin—he had never even kissed a girl. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it,” he promised. “On the Day of Retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB, and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut I see inside there.”
Despite the fact that these shootings are anything but senseless, why does the myth that these killings are illogical—and, thus, not worth analyzing—prevail? It’s because as much as we are afraid to reckon with the violence that men like Rodger and Houser inflicted upon innocent young women (and men), we are just scared to see that the destructive ideas that motivated them might implicate America’s white masculinity complex—or the gun culture that arms it.
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When the National Rifle Association called the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre “senseless and horrific,” it wasn’t out of a state of shock—due to the loss of innocent life. The NRA was facing the threat of increased gun regulations following the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. By invoking the murders’ senselessness, what the organization really meant was simple: “Hey, don’t blame us.”
The myth of senseless mass killings, thus, functions like the specter of “mental illness,” a red herring that distracts from the real discussion we should be having. As Arthur Chu points out in Salon, it’s a “goddamn cop-out.” Chu writes, “We ... have statistics showing that the vast majority of people who commit acts of violence do not have a diagnosis of mental illness and, conversely, people who have mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.” But Chu argues that pinning it on mental illness is totally unnecessary: “Mass murderers frequently aren’t particularly shy about the motives behind what they do.”
As in the case of Elliot Rodger, we don’t really need to ask what could have possibly been going through the mind of this deranged man—we already know. Instead of continuing to ask the wrong questions, perhaps we should ask how a walking red flag like John Russell Houser got a gun to begin with.