It's not just about guns: What the gun control debate exposes — and threatens — in our toxic white male culture of violence

America loves its firearms—but they're just the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg

By Paula Young Lee
Published October 5, 2015 3:05PM (EDT)
 Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

The “school shooting” is now as American as apple pie. Though school shootings have occurred in other countries, the US excels at them. In the wake of last week’s school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, there are dozens of think pieces recycling statistics that get trotted out, picked apart, and ignored for various reasons as this dismal cycle keeps repeating. But here are two statistics worth noting: three years after Sandy Hook, there have been 142 more school shootings; and more Americans than ever are in favor of gun rights. It’s 52 percent for gun rights, and 46 for gun control.

So America loves its guns. I state this not in judgment, but as an observation. But in juxtaposition, these two statistics helps clarify the underlying reality that all the finger-pointing mostly serves to distract us from looking too hard at ourselves. The essence of the political fight is not ignorant rednecks vs. liberal elites, the mentally ill vs. calm rationalists, misunderstood males vs. feminazis or foreigners or terrorists or what have you, but the definition of what it means to be an American. If there is anything left of the American dream to be salvaged, it is the “united” part of the United States that needs to be regained. Because it isn’t them. It’s us. We are the problem.

Overall, gun violence is down, but rampage shootings are up. When asked, “Why does America lead the world in school shootings?” the former Associate Director the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Frank Ochberg, listed the following five factors: 1) bullying, 2) major mental illness, 3) violent role models, 4) drugs, and 5) access to guns. Read that list again. Think about it. Consider the order in which it is presented, because factors 1-4 presage the final decision, which is obtaining a gun. But sociologists frequently note two additional factors driving this phenomenon: 6) copycatting, which requires the media circus precisely because the model being copied, Columbine, is the one where the media changed the script, and 7) a distinctly American version of individualism.

First: the media’s role in school shootings. A research paper from 2009 by Ralph J. Larkin outlined exactly when things changed. In 1999 at Columbine, the two shooters redefined the socio-cultural meaning of “school shooting.” It was no longer about taking revenge for individual grievances, i.e. a personal fight with a particular kid at school, but a means to publicly protest the “bullying, intimidation, social isolation, and public rituals of humiliation” they’d experienced in their short, unhappy lives. Ostensibly, in other words, they killed on behalf of all picked-on, disrespected males everywhere, becoming martyrs in the eyes of their seething brethren.

Via endless repetition on air (and now reinforced through virtual tribes on social media), Columbine subsequently took on “mythical” aspects, Larkin observed, and profoundly influenced school shootings that took place in “Conyers, Georgia; Fort Gibson, Oklahoma; East Greenwich, New York; Red Lake, Minnesota; Hillsborough, North Carolina; and Virginia Tech University,” etc., all the way up to the shootings at UCC.

Sociologist Jonathan Fast expanded on the meaning of this imitation by hypothesizing that these school shootings served a ceremonial function. “Theatrical, tragic, and pointless….[they are] a throwback to something very ancient and primitive, where the supplicant plays the part of a god….prior to his own execution.” (Or, in the case of many of these shooters, suicide by cop.) Theater requires an audience, so these young men try to generate ever-higher body counts as a form of one-upmanship but also as a “means of generating media attention.”

In short, it is killing for the sake of notoriety, thereby establishing credibility among a peer group that feels similar rage at the world. For the injured ego, it is better to be remembered forever in infamy, than to limp through life as that kid whose name everyone forgets.

Which brings us to American individualism. The studies noted above have remarked that school shootings have quite a bit in common, as they tend to take place in suburban or rural areas where violent crime is relatively rare, and the young men are white and middle class. The overwhelming white maleness of these school shooters is not inconsequential, because it means they fall into the statistically defined parameters of the typical American gun owner who, according to data collected by social scientist Katarzyna Celinska, is Protestant, white, and male, and holds conservative political views. Crucially, the focus of her study was not guns per se. Instead, she sought to better define the ethos of utilitarian individualism--this ethos arguably being what is “American” about American culture--by looking at guns as a cultural axis.

Her hypothesis: opposition to gun control is rooted in America’s enduring tradition of individualism, whereas support for gun control is rooted in equally entrenched (but substantially weaker) collectivistic strains of American culture. To her surprise, she found that “white racial status is the strongest predictor of individualism. Thus, minorities, disadvantaged, and people from the lower socioeconomic strata tend to be more collectivistic.” (Also, women.) Extrapolated, this means that Whites support gun rights, and everybody else supports gun control.

This finding is critical for understanding what is at stake. In Crime and the American Dream, 1997, Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld defined the American Dream as “commitment to the goals of material success, to be pursued by everyone in society, under conditions of open, individual competition.” Now in a permanent state of anomie (a condition defined as a chronic, structural, and institutionalized gap between one’s ego-driven needs and those of society as a whole), American society fosters competitive individualism, with a corresponding disdain for social controls that limit “freedom.”

The individualistic vision of America is deeply threatened by any hint of gun control, to which the only correct response can be the one uttered famously by actor Charlton Heston in 2000 when he was president of the NRA: “From my cold, dead hands.” It also explains why so many conservatives loathe Barack Obama, as he embodies the collectivist, minority worldview which is aligned with progressive liberalism.

So when Stacy Bare (a White man and Army reservist) postulates on the Huffington Post, okay guys, let’s keep the guns, but let’s ensure that all Americans get a living wage, access to clean air and healthcare, etc., his views embody the collectivist worldview derided by conservatives as “socialist” “Commie,” or otherwise coded as foreign. He is thus bashed in the comments, even though he begins his essay by accepting, as a working premise, that Americans keep their guns with no changes to any laws. This is pretty telling, I think, as it shows that the essence of the political battle isn’t over guns, or even school shootings (which, by the way, the same studies quoted above as instances of “moral panic” created by the media.)

Is America a nation of exceptional individuals where every child is above average, or a diverse society that stands for each other and works together? We need to take a long hard look at our own fascination with violence, a toxic culture of masculinity that fosters a destructive narrative of one winner and a whole lot of losers, and a popular culture that celebrates puerility while remaining stubbornly attached to a frontier mythology where guns solve problems. To these superficials, add the enormous economic inequality in this country, increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather patterns, and the fact that study after study predicts the “browning of America,” which foresees the dismantling of white cultural hegemony and leads “down an ominous and unfamiliar stretch of road.”

Existential dread is pretty difficult for twenty-somethings who’ve never read Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, or even Shirley Jackson to articulate. The voiceless turn to violence as their only means of being heard. The homicidal-suicidal use their death as a symbolic act of defiance—giving the finger to an indifferent world in which they do not want to live. If these statistical profiles are accurate, America is changing. But not without a fight. Ironically, the most powerful weapon in this war is the kind of education that doesn’t come from the internet, but books you have to read. For school.

Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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