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Guns Don't Kill People, Toxic Masculinity Does

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My 5-year-old daughter was less than six weeks into kindergarten when she experienced a lockdown for the first time. A cop had initiated a traffic stop nearby and the suspect fled toward campus. As my daughter's teacher huddled the class in the back corner of the room, having drawn the blinds and locked the doors, one of the kids wondered aloud if a bear had gotten onto campus. My daughter and her classmates agreed — that being the most dangerous scenario most could imagine.

Down the hall at the same school, my wife tried to keep her first grade class calm and quiet as students hid under tables in her room, which was dark from the pulled curtains. One of her students began crying hysterically, saying she didn't want to be shot, as my wife assured her she was there to protect her.

In the aftermath of the incident — which thankfully ended with an uneventful "all clear" — we reflected on the fact that school shootings have now essentially become part of the school curriculum, something students learn, evidently sometime between their fifth and sixth birthdays. And that's important because school shootings have become a fact of life in this country. As I write this, there have been eight school shootings so far in 2018, an average of about one a week. By the time this newspaper leaves newsstands, chances are there will have been another.

And chances are it will have been carried out by a white male with a military-style assault rifle. The suspect will likely have a history of violent, abusive or controlling behavior toward the women in his life. And chances are politicians and pundits will turn red in the face talking about missed signs, mental health services and the Second Amendment.

All those conversations are important. Our systems always need to be evaluated and retooled in an effort to head off crises before they explode. Mental health services in the United States are horribly underfunded and underutilized. And military grade weapons have no place on our streets or in our homes.

While it's not the point of this editorial and I won't dwell on it, that last sentence seems to cause people to freak out, so let me be clear: You have a right to bear arms. But just as your right to swing your fists wildly ends when one of them connects with my nose, or your free speech rights end when you say something slanderous or dangerous, like shouting "fire" in a crowded movie theater, the right to bear arms isn't limitless. As a society, we've already decided it doesn't extend to chemical weapons, grenade launchers or nuclear bombs, so we can decide it doesn't extend to assault rifles, either.

But what is so often missing from all these conversations is an examination of the underlying phenomenon — our uniquely American version, anyway — that has left boys and men feeling so alienated and angry that they want to indiscriminately hurt as many people as possible.

In the aftermaths of these shootings, an almost startlingly uniform picture emerges of a suspect feeling aggrieved and owed — whether it's because he was passed over for a job, saw romantic aspirations rebuffed or simply isn't living the life he feels entitled to.

Just as the predatory sexual behavior being exposed through the #MeToo movement is about power and control, American mass shootings are about men and boys feeling entitled but powerless to the point they feel they must do something drastically "masculine" to reclaim their pride.

More than whether to ban some guns or bolster mental health services (yes and yes), the most important question we should all be grappling with is how we can create a healthier cultural trope for boys to follow. How do we get them to see healing instead of killing, nurturing instead of hurting, caring instead of cruelty as the embodiments of masculinity? How do we teach them women are to be celebrated and supported rather than hurt and exploited?

If we can answer that, maybe there will be a day in the future when a bear on campus is the scariest thing our first graders can think of.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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