Many school shooters, one common factor: a warped view of masculinity

As debate rages over gun control, media portrayals of shooters, and other factors, one topic doesn't get enough discussion, those who study mass shootings say: masculinity.

Steve Dipaola/Reuters
People take part in a candlelight vigil following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Oct. 1.

As the community of Roseburg, Ore., grapples with grief and questions about the mass shooting Thursday at Umpqua Community College that left nine victims and the gunman dead, the now-familiar national conversations about campus safety, gun control, and mental health are under way.

Also emerging in this case is the question of whether the shooter was motivated, at least in part, by animosity toward organized religion in general, or toward Christians in particular. Various media reports cite at least three witnesses saying the shooter asked students their religion, and one said he specifically targeted for killing those who identified as Christian.

Sorting out the specifics of the shooter’s background and motivation will take investigators some time. Those who have studied mass killings say it’s not uncommon for the perpetrators to harbor anger against society and express hatred toward various groups. Yet harboring such views doesn’t necessarily mean they were the prime motivation for the crime, they say.

Usually it’s “a toxic cocktail of factors,” says Christopher Kilmartin, a professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

But there’s one topic that’s not getting enough discussion, he and some others say: masculinity. “The elephant in the room with ... mass shootings is that almost all of them are being done by men,” Professor Kilmartin says. Male shooters often “project their difficulties onto other people.... In this case, it sounds like he was blaming Christians for his problems, but the masculinity piece is what is really missing in the discussions about the equation.”

Men are often raised to be stoic, to suppress emotions rather than understand them, and when they struggle, often the only emotion that they see as sufficiently masculine to express is anger, says Jon Davies, director of the McKenzie River Men's Center in Eugene, Ore., and a former psychologist at the University of Oregon. On top of that, he says, “it’s impossible to reach the ideal of what it means to be a man.”

Fortunately, the vast majority of men get enough support in their lives that those societal pressures don’t turn into mass violence.

While mass shooters are often seen as “outliers or oddballs ... we should actually think of them as conformists,” says Tristan Bridges, a sociologist at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, citing research on masculinity by expert Michael Kimmel. “They’re over-conforming to masculinity, because they perceive themselves, in some way or another, as emasculated.... It’s a terrible statement about American masculinity, to say that when you’re emasculated, one way to respond is to open fire.”

In many ways, Professor Bridges adds, the problem goes straight to a culture awash in changing definitions of gender roles and economic woes that have forestalled, for many, hopes of upward mobility. “There are not clear milestones in our society that there used to be as they transitioned from boys to men.”

The nation is going through a transition as it becomes more diverse, as well, and many expect the diversity to make it better in the long run, but “there’s a lot of anger and violence as we go through this transition,” says Mark Potok, an expert on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization in Montgomery, Ala., that tracks hate groups.

If it turns out that the shooter did specifically target Christians because of their faith, it would be the first time someone had done this in the United States in at least 15 years, Mr. Potok says. But even if that was just a small part of his motivation, the shooting “comes in the context of an increasingly fractured society,” with attacks on racial minorities, gay people, and various religious groups.

Some cultural messages suggest to men that violence enhances their status, and “for people who feel powerless, getting a gun is seen as a way to suddenly have that power,” says Peter Langman, an author on school shootings who offers a wide array of research and resources online.

It’s not uncommon for mass shooters to leave indications that their actions were following a pattern set by other disaffected young men who found infamy through mass murder.

That may have factored into Thursday’s shooting. Chris Harper-Mercer, the 26-year-old identified as the shooter, reportedly sympathized in some of his online writings, for example, with Vester Flanagan, a failed newscaster who killed two fellow journalists on the air in Virginia in late August and later killed himself.

People “like him have nothing left to live for,” Mr. Harper-Mercer appears to have written on Aug. 31 in a blog, according to various media outlets. “[S]o many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are.... Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

At a press conference Friday, Douglas County, Ore., Sheriff John Hanlin reiterated that’s why “you’ll not hear anyone from this law enforcement operation use his name.... I continue to believe that those media and community members who publicize his name will only glorify his horrific actions, and only serve to inspire future shooters.” 

Officials found a document written by the shooter that "tracked the often desperate and depressed writings from members of a loosely affiliated group ... [whose] members associated with the group share profound disappointment with their lots in life and the lack of meaningful relationships," USA Today reported. 

Harper-Mercer failed Army basic training in 2008, Associated Press reported Friday. Other reports indicate he liked shooting video-game zombies. He was seen by his neighbors as the shaven young man in combat boots, who hurried past without acknowledgment. One family member, however, described him as a “nice guy. He put everyone before himself,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

“It’s very difficult to identify specific individuals at high risk of a crime like this,” says Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who has studied mass shootings. There are many men who have mental health problems or may simply be seen as hostile or strange who never go on to become gun violence perpetrators, he says. 

For those who know of threats or a sign of something suspicious about a person’s behavior or mental state that hints at a possible violent attack, it’s best “to come forward and let law enforcement know.... You may be the one to stop something like this from happening,” Professor Ferguson says.

There are some efforts under way to connect high school and college-age men with opportunities to talk about masculinity and break free from some of the pressures they may feel from society.

Dr. Davies found that at the University of Oregon in Eugene, two-thirds of the students coming to the counseling center for help were female, so he and some colleagues asked men why and found that the thought of going to counseling made them feel ashamed or inadequate. But they said, “If you have a talk on health issues with pizza, we can come, because we have an excuse,” Davies says. So he tried to offer therapeutic opportunities outside the counseling center. 

Kilmartin of the University of Mary Washington says that while there’s some discussion of masculinity, mental health, and violence (both mass shootings and interpersonal violence such as rape), he encounters resistance when he raises these issues. “I get hate mail, as if I’m betraying men,” he says. On the contrary, he says, he’s motivated by the belief that “we as men can do better.”

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