Why are mass shoot­ers over­whelm­ingly white?

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE A PLACE TO BE HEARD - Clarence Page

As the toll from mass shootings this year al­ready ap­proaches the to­tal for all of last year, more peo­ple are openly ask­ing a ques­tion that has lurked mostly in the shad­ows: Why are the shoot­ers al­most al­ways white men?

“Men­tal ill­ness and ha­tred pull the trig­ger, not the gun,” de­clared Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump when he con­demned shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Day­ton, Ohio, which left at least 31 peo­ple dead and dozens wounded.

I wish it were that sim­ple. The pres­i­dent was right about ha­tred, but as psy­chi­a­trists and so­cial sci­en­tists look for fac­tors that might help us to pre­dict mass vi­o­lence, they find it’s not men­tal ill­ness as of­ten as it’s just men, over­whelm­ingly white men.

Sure, there have been in­fa­mous ex­cep­tions, such as the 30-year-old woman who shot and killed one boy and wounded five other chil­dren in a Win­netka, Illi­nois, ele­men­tary school in 1988 be­fore shoot­ing a man and then killing her­self.

Or there was the D.C. sniper case, in which two African Amer­i­can men, ages 41 and 17, ter­ror­ized the Wash­ing­ton metropoli­tan area in 2002, killing 17 peo­ple and wound­ing 10 oth­ers in a na­tion­wide ram­page.

Well minds, in my non­med­i­cal opin­ion, do not com­mit such hor­ri­ble acts.

But a deeper dive into sta­tis­tics finds se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness to be con­clu­sively present in only a mi­nor­ity of mass shootings, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous stud­ies us­ing dif­fer­ent stan­dards for what con­sti­tutes a men­tal health prob­lem. A 2014 FBI study, for ex­am­ple, found that most mass shoot­ers have a his­tory of show­ing some symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness, though only about a fourth ac­tu­ally have been di­ag­nosed.

But de­mo­graph­i­cally, a data­base kept by the AP/USA To­day/North­east­ern Univer­sity shows that slightly more than half, 51.1%, of mass shootings are com­mit­ted by young, white men. Blacks com­mit­ted 28.4% and Lati­nos 10.2%. The me­dian age of a pub­lic mass shooter is 28.

Since 2006, 12 mass shootings have been com­mit­ted by gun­men 21 or younger, in­clud­ing the 21-year-old sus­pected gun­man in El Paso.

Why? One rea­son may well be “triple priv­i­lege,” as it is called in a 2014 pa­per that has at­tracted new in­ter­est after the re­cent at­tacks. Pub­lished by Eric Mad­fis of the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton Ta­coma in the jour­nal “Men and Mas­culin­i­ties,” Mad­fis con­cluded that mass killers tend to share el­e­ments of white en­ti­tle­ment and het­ero­sex­ual mas­culin­ity pres­sured by anx­i­eties about mid­dle-class instabilit­y and down­ward eco­nomic mo­bil­ity.

“Women tend to in­ter­nal­ize blame and frus­tra­tion, while men tend to ex­ter­nal­ize it through acts of ag­gres­sion,” Mad­fis, who is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity’s crim­i­nal jus­tice depart­ment, told Politico last year.

Mad­fis de­scribes symp­toms that fem­i­nists have la­beled “toxic mas­culin­ity.” Testos­terone of­ten catches the blame, but re­searchers have found that high testos­terone might be more of a symp­tom than a cause of vi­o­lent be­hav­ior.

So­ci­etal in­flu­ences prob­a­bly play a larger role, in­clud­ing mes­sages from me­dia, sports, the mil­i­tary, the work­place and our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem that may link mas­culin­ity to ex­pres­sions of ag­gres­sion by men. One of­ten-cited ex­am­ple is a ma­cho-heavy ad for Rem­ing­ton’s Bush­mas­ter Ri­fle. It por­trays the mil­i­tary as­sault-style ri­fle with the bold head­line: “Con­sider Your Man Card Reis­sued.”

Rem­ing­ton hardly in­vented the link­age be­tween man­hood and sexy-look­ing mil­i­tary-style weapons. It’s hard-baked into our cul­ture and, many would say, hard-wired into our male brains.

But re­search and ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence also sug­gests that so­ci­etal in­flu­ences play a larger role than bi­ol­ogy; other­wise, there would be many more of us shoot­ing up in­no­cent peo­ple.

Con­trary to Pres­i­dent Trump’s ob­ser­va­tion, whether it is ha­tred, men­tal ill­ness or con­fused lessons about the mean­ing of man­hood, we need to find ways to pre­vent that trig­ger from be­ing pulled.

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