In June of 2012, a man opened fire inside a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. He killed 12 people and injured 58 more. Only days ago, a man in Oregon opened fire in a mall and then killed himself. On Friday, December 14 it happened again, only this time it was at an elementary school where 27 people were killed, most of them children, in Newtown, Connecticut. Mass shootings like these make us wonder how people can simply take the lives of so many others. We think about motives, the shooters complete disrespect for human life, and most often we cannot think of how to describe such atrocities without using words such as monstrous, horrendous and sick and we wish something like this would never happen again. Mass shootings and school shootings are rare, but leave us mortified every time. Many of us also remember other school shootings, some of the more high profile ones being the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, and the Columbine High shootings in 1999. There is an overall pattern in terms of both school shootings and mass shootings; the perpetrator is almost always male, and is often emasculated in one way or another. In The Bully Society, Jessie Klein not only discusses school shootings, but also the reason why such shootings happen in the first place. She states that many of the perpetrators lash out at people in order to prove their masculinity. Often the target is a bully, a teacher who did not stop the bullying, an ex-girlfriend, or a girl that rejected the boy. Overall, Klein describes how the pressure to behave in ways that reinforce traditional masculinity and hegemonic masculinity lead to the lashing out, and the killing of others, especially when such boys are bullied, are of lower status, are told that they are sissies, or do not fit in. Klein states that: “The rigid status hierarchies found in today’s schools have not developed in a vacuum. They come from a larger, more encompassing set of values, generated by what I call a bully economy” (p.5). Similarly to school shooting, Michael Kimmel discusses the notion of masculinity and terrorism in Gender, class and, terrorism, where he describes how the majority of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attack were of lower classes, lacked status and therefore felt emasculated and angry. These men used violence in order to try to restore their masculinity. Similarly, the man who killed so many other students at Virginia Tech was bullied and mocked, as were the two Columbine High shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
We may never know why the gunman decided to take so many lives in Newtown, Connecticut. Perhaps it had little do with masculinity at all. But we do know that gender and threats to masculinity are common factors in both mass shootings and school shootings. We pretend as if there is no connection between such shootings and gender, and we pretend that our definitions of masculinity, aggression and relentless bullying in schools do not matter or are normal parts of everyday life. Of course there is no forgiving these atrocious actions, and plenty of people who are bullied or do not live up the standards of traditional masculinity never turn their anger towards others, but we need to at least think about why so many boys and men end up killing others.