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Masculinity overdue for a reckoning after mass shootings, child advocates say

Programs around the country are trying to reduce violence in boys and young men by changing the perspective of what it means to be a man.
Photo illustration of AR-style rifles behind held by men, semi-automatic weapons on the wall of a gun store with an American flag, a masculine male model, gun range targets, and two women consoling one another after the mass shooting in Buffalo in 2022.
NBC News; Getty Images

Days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, staffers at Men as Peacemakers, a Minnesota group that works with students to break down gender stereotypes and reduce violence, checked in with participants to see how they were feeling.  

The students, who were mostly white, mirroring the state’s demographics, talked about lockdown drills they had practiced in school, but their responses were not very emotional, said Serrano Robinson, the group's youth restorative program coordinator. 

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24 that left 19 children and two teachers dead “sadly seemed kind of normal” to them, he said.

As civic leaders and politicians look for ways to stop mass shootings, advocates across the country from organizations like Men as Peacemakers say their work is vital to overcoming the toxic masculinity that research has found to be at the root of many mass shootings and other acts of violence perpetrated by men.

Research suggests such programs can be key to encouraging healthier emotional expression in young people, breaking down gender stereotypes and ultimately reducing violence.

“We’re not saying something like [our program] can always prevent violence, because there are so many multifaceted reasons why violence happens,” said Sarah Curtiss, co-executive director of Men as Peacemakers. “But what might happen if all children were able to be seen, heard, to have a broad emotional vocabulary?” 

According to a database maintained by the Violence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center funded by the National Institute of Justice, 98% of mass shooters over the last 50 years have been men, and at least 53% of them have been white men. 

Although research indicates many factors contribute to a man’s decision to carry out a mass shooting, including his access to guns, his psychological makeup, personal grievances and extremist views, studies also show that conceptions of masculinity encouraging violence and social dominance are large motivators.

“White heterosexual male entitlement fuses with downward mobility, subordinated masculinity, and other disappointing life course events” to lead mass shooters to carry out their attacks in an attempt to regain a sense of dominance after feeling socially outcast, the authors of a 2014 study published in the journal Men and Masculinities wrote.

Another study published in 2010 in the journal Health Sociology Review examined three mass shootings that ended with the gunmen killing themselves and concluded the shooters felt “‘aggrieved entitlement’ — a gendered sense that they were entitled, even expected — to exact their revenge on all who had hurt them.”

Undoing such a belief system, or preventing it in the first place, requires developing positive models of masculinity and a broader range of emotional expression, advocates said. 

Men as Peacemakers tries to encourage emotional awareness in boys and young men bombarded with messages from the media and society to suppress their feelings, Robinson said. 

Weekly sessions usually start with check-ins where students are asked to use an emoji chart illustrated with faces expressing two dozen emotions to help them describe how they feel.  

“I don’t think they’re given that time to just be emotional,” he said.

At Maine Boys to Men, its Reducing Sexism and Violence Program focuses on breaking down gender stereotypes and building healthy relationships, as well as empathy and consent in sexual situations.

“How does somebody get to the point where they’re taking a gun to school and committing an act of violence so horrific that we’re missing?” said executive director Heidi Randall. “That doesn’t come out of nowhere.” 

Maine Boys to Men has served at least 13,000 students, mostly white, reflecting the state’s demographics, since its founding in 1998, Randall said.

Leaders often discuss with students how “performative masculinity” manifests in pop culture and politics, such as Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars and Russian President Vladimir Putin waging war on Ukraine, said program manager Jordan Hebert. 

“So much of our work is meeting people where they’re at,” Hebert said, “and where they’re at is saturated in this culture of violence.” 

A 2019 study of the program, published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review, found it improved middle school boys’ views of gender equality in relationships and their perceptions of male power. 

Cure Violence, which currently works with more than 1,600 people — mostly boys and young men of color — on violence reduction in communities across the country, also has an evidence-based approach that includes interrupting potentially violent conflicts, identifying and treating high-risk individuals and changing community norms by employing people from the neighborhood to work with high-risk individuals and local leaders to build trust and stop violence.

Various independent studies found Cure Violence programs reduced killings by 31% in Chicago, 56% in Baltimore and 63% in New York City. 

“We know that the socialization process in the United States really kind of inculcates in males a code that links traditional male gender roles with violence,” said chief executive officer Dr. Fredrick Echols. 

“By having a safe space where men can go to say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling, I really need help,’ that’s really empowering,” Echols added. 

Both regular gun violence and mass shootings emanate from the same source of dominant social norms that encourage violent masculinity, advocates say, pointing out that men are both the perpetrators and the victims of most gun violence, according to the American Psychological Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

And Black men are 15 times more likely to die by firearm homicide than white men, according to an April report published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

“There is a commonality [between mass shooters and other perpetrators of gun violence] with how the masculinity is expected to be expressed,” said Derek McCoy, co-executive director for programs and partnerships at Project PAVE, a violence-reduction organization in Denver. 

McCoy created Project PAVE’s True Man program that focuses on ending relationship violence through behaviors that reflect healthy masculinity. Leaders will ask students, who are primarily Black and Latino, to write down the feelings they show others on one side of a piece of paper and the feelings they keep to themselves on the other. 

This allows the students to “get to know each other [in] an authentic sense,” McCoy said. “We can’t assume we’re going to fix these individuals [perpetrating mass shootings] that are coming out as lone wolves when we’re turning them into lone wolves."  

To the mostly Black and Latino students in Becoming a Man in Chicago, the recent mass shootings reminded them of the gun violence that unfolds in their neighborhoods everyday, said Hannaan Joplin, senior regional manager of BAM Chicago.

“On the one hand, they don’t feel so alone, but it’s also like, where can you be safe now?” Joplin said. “Even kids in suburbs … are dealing with the exact same thing we’re dealing with.” 

BAM emphasizes six core values — integrity, accountability, self-determination, respect for womanhood, goal setting and positive anger expression — which students cultivate through activities like meditation and using punching mitts to release pent-up frustration without hurting others, Joplin said. 

Joplin said that when he thinks about the recent mass shootings, he remembers the gunmen “were once little kids.” 

“If they had something like a BAM [program] … I wonder if they would’ve made those same decisions,” he said.