As an instructor, a criminologist, a gun owner, and a young person, I have given a lot of thought to the recent events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Like many of my peers, I am frustrated with the reality that children are being gunned down in their own classrooms on a regular basis. Rather than rehash what has already been written about these issues, below I discuss some of those misconceptions, offer what I argue is an overlooked but potentially crucial variable in explaining school violence, and conclude by briefly addressing some of the solutions that have been proposed.
If, as a society, we continue to ask the wrong questions, we will continue to produce the wrong answers. Typical explanations of school violence tend to include video games (or other media), family structure, mental illness, and guns, all of which have significant flaws. For example, the claim that things like violent movies and abusive households are directly responsible for mass shooters seems difficult to reconcile with the fact that women and people in other cultures exposed to the exact same circumstances do not produce remotely similar consequences. In the case of mental illness, it is an empirical fact that an individual with mental illness is much more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator. Finally, even if every single firearm disappeared tomorrow (1), we are still left with a central but continuously overlooked question that no discussion of guns or any of the other factors discussed so far can address: Why is it that young men decide to express their anger and frustration through extreme acts of violence?
I argue that a key explanatory variable in understanding school violence is a culture that teaches young men to glorify violence and domination and to erase any part of themselves that could be associated with femininity. Simply put, as a society, we have created a lot of broken young men who have been told that acknowledging their emotions is a violation of their masculinity, and worse, who have never been taught how to appropriately express those emotions. If you think this argument is farfetched, consider this: not only do men die from suicide 3.53 times more often then women, but white men in particular account for as many as 70% of all suicides per year (2). Since the “Boy Code” demands we suppress all emotion and express ourselves only in violence, we are literally killing ourselves, and others.
A look back at mass shootings from the past few decades reveals a startling trail of young men who were bullied for being gay (or perceived as gay), and who sought revenge on young women – a horrific but logical extension of dating and domestic violence. For example, in the 2014 Isla Vista Shooting, the perpetrator left behind an online manifesto where he explicitly notes that the motivation for his attacks, which killed six students and injured fourteen others, was to punish women for rejecting him and to punish sexually active men for their apparent prowess (3). If we put these pieces together, as argued above, the key to understanding school violence is not scapegoating it to a handful of tangential factors, but addressing head-on the cultural acceptance of boys’ obsession with violence and their unwillingness to express emotion or seek help. I admit there are no easy solutions for doing this, but it is a conversation that I argue we need to begin to recognize and have as a society.
Finally, alongside discussions about why these kinds of events occur are those about how to secure our schools. Without question, we must do whatever we can to keep our children safe. But I conclude with a word of warning. As an educator, a gun owner, and a criminologist, I must argue that although well intentioned, I caution against suggestions that point toward militarizing our teachers and schools. Instead of repeating the many commentators that have already gone down the rabbit holes of arming instructors and similar suggestions, I wish to draw your attention to the bigger picture. There are already facilities that maintain order and security by utilizing a combination of perimeter security, armed guards, cameras, metal detectors, and other measures. These are called prisons. While I agree we need to do whatever is necessary to keep our children secure, I have to question how free we really are as a society if the only we can provide a safe education is to treat our schools like prisons or the streets of Fallujah. If this is the very best we can do for our children, I personally believe we should be embarrassed.
There is no doubt much complexity and nuance to the overlapping and entangled issues discussed here. While we may have disagreements on how to proceed, other than the morally bankrupt sycophants that used this tragedy as an opportunity to hurl insults at young people, most of us agree we must come together and begin to do something. I readily admit I do not know what the answers are, but I do know we must begin to have frank conversions and proceed carefully with policy.
- To be clear, as a gun owner, concealed weapons permit holder, and a criminologist, I can think of at least a half dozen policies I might implement to address guns in particular, and I do believe certain measures could reduce the number of fatalities in these situations, which is absolutely something we should work toward.
- American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. 2016. “Suicide Statistics.” AFSP https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/
- 2014 Isla Visa Killings. 2014. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Isla_Vista_killings