“So, there are people who have been rejected by lots of girls, or ignored by friends or by peers ― people who have experienced lots of job losses,” said Madfis, who authored a study on the common traits of mass murderers.
Rather than working toward constructive solutions when they feel they have fallen short, these men turn their rage outward. “It is a recourse; it’s a way for someone to perform [his] masculinity by engaging in this massive act of violence,” Madfis said.
Another common trait among mass killers is that they tend to blame others for their problems. “And part of that relates to masculinity, as well, because men are much more likely to externalize blame in general; they’re much more likely to see other people as causing them problems and to act,” Madfis said.
The correlation between masculinity and homicide goes beyond mass shootings. Almost 90% of suspects arrested for any form of homicide in California in 2018 were male, a disparity that has not changed much over the decades, even as the number of homicides declined. FBI data reflect the same discrepancy nationwide.
Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine specialist at UC Davis Medical Center and director of the center’s Violence Prevention Research Program, said myriad factors might explain why men are more likely to kill than women, including learned behavior and genetic predispositions.
“Risk-taking behavior is more common among men than among women,” he said. “So, men binge-drink more often than women do and drink heavily on a chronic basis more often than women do. And, alcohol abuse is a risk factor for violence.”
He also notes that when it comes to men who commit mass violence, increasingly “there’s been evidence of specific animosity toward women.”
Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College, a senior research adviser for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and executive director of the Representation Project, a nonprofit started by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the governor’s spouse, that is devoted to challenging gender stereotypes.
Efforts to reduce mass shootings should emphasize reducing what is often termed “toxic masculinity,” Heldman said, the pernicious societal norm that being a man means “you can’t show emotion, that you can’t seek help when you need it, essentially that you can’t be fully human, you can’t be vulnerable.”
Encouraging media portrayals that depict boys and men in a vulnerable and realistic way could help reduce mass shootings, Heldman said. Parents can help by examining the ways in which they discourage boys from healthy expressions of emotion.
“We know from studies that even feminist mothers will give girls, their daughters, more sympathy when they are hurt than their sons, which encourages boys to hide their pain and to deprioritize their pain, and view it as not being something that they can show the world,” said Heldman.
Madfis said mental health professionals also could play a role in preventing violent behavior by considering their patients’ conceptions of masculinity during counseling.
“Try to address mental health from a perspective that actually addresses men as men,” he said. “Try to grapple with healthy forms of masculinity, and try to reject the more toxic and problematic forms of masculinity.”
Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and an assistant professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento.
This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.