Why are mass shooters overwhelmingly white?
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.