In the wake of another tragic school shooting and re-ignition of the flames of impassioned debate over guns and gun control, some people have dared to suggest we have problems other than guns. They get shot down pretty quickly now, as it seems we just can’t ignore the gun problem we have. Yes, I have been reluctant to say it… we have a gun problem.
But, we have more problems than guns. Mental health may be an issue, but statistics suggest that the United States has no greater incidence of mental health problems than the rest of the world. Maybe the incidence of mental health problems isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is the way we treat it (or don’t treat it as the case may be).
But that isn’t the only problem either. We assume that anyone who shoots up a school playground is crazy, but that is a dangerous assumption. We think that they are “not like us”, but history suggests we might be fooling ourselves. Given the right factors, circumstances and pressures, any one of us might do things we could never imagine.
The Holocaust wasn’t just the result of a despot few. It took a nation of “regular people” to allow it to happen. If the Holocaust happened in the US today (not suggesting it will), your neighbors would be going off to work this morning to the concentration camps, gas chambers and sterile government offices that allowed genocide to become a national industry. It could very well be us, given the right mix of circumstances and pressures.
The gun problem in the United States isn’t likely the result of a single problem. Reality is more complicated than that. Rather, a confluence of factors and circumstances have come together to create this perfect storm – this phenomenon that is unique in the civilized world.
Among the factors, I speculate, is the history of gun rights that is unparalleled in any other country. Gun ownership is an individual right in the United States. It’s even built into our Constitution. No other country has that history.
But, I don’t think the availability of guns or mental health or or our history, pick your pet theory, are the only issues. School shootings are a recent phenomenon. The first school shooting took place in 1966, and the incidents of indiscriminate school shootings have risen exponentially in the last 20-30 years. Something else is going on.
We tend to let ourselves fall into the trap of false dichotomies: it’s either guns or not guns. Yes it is! Not it’s not!
Like schoolyard banter, nothing gets accomplished because each side is too busy defending their own side of the argument, and too stubborn to concede anything to the “other side”, so we don’t get anywhere. Nothing gets done. We end up with no resolve and no solutions.
I am not anti-gun, but I am here to say I am willing to listen to reasonable measures to limit gun ownership. We have to do that. It’s a numbers game. The more guns that are available for more people to get a hold of, the more likely it is that guns will end up in the hands of people who are dangerous. I am willing to listen to the people who say we have a mental health problem. I am willing to consider other issues and solutions.
But there is problem that few people are talking about it: it’s a problem with our boys. When was the last time a girl was involved in a school shooting? How about a mass shooting of any kind? Girls and women have been involved in school shootings, but school shootings are overwhelmingly committed by boys and men.
It’s past time that we started talking in earnest about what has happened to our boys!
Read the NY times Op-Ed piece, The Boys Are Not All Right, by Michael Ian Black. I don’t think he fully addresses the issue, but he shines a light on it. Very few people are addressing this issue. Almost no one is talking about it.
We have a boy problem in the United States.
As with the history of guns, from the Revolution and 2nd Amendment to the Wild West to the gangs in our cities, guns and boys/men have had a similar history that is unique to the United States. It is fueled by the American virtues of rugged individualism, self-reliance, Manifest Destiny and a conquering, taming and self-help mentality. But something has happened in the last 50 years that has turned those virtues on their heads. Michael Black says:
“The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.”
We have focused our attention on the girls, and rightly so. Fifty years ago, the traditionally male institutions in our modern society had run their course. It was time to release the constraints and welcome the girls into the boys club. Our educational systems have uniquely focused over the last 50 years delivering education differently with the end goal, among other things, of encouraging girls to embrace math and science, to erase the assumptions that held girls back and equip them in every way to succeed in a male-dominated world.
There is nothing wrong with this. It was high time for societal norms to change in this way. But, as with many well-intentioned and good endeavors, our focus on girls has resulted in a vacuum in the world of boys. The old stereotypes and expectations have been pushed aside, but nothing has been substituted in their place – at least not for the boys. As with girls previously, boys have been left, more or less, to figure it out.
Many boys do figure it out, but some need help. Boys need the same kind of attention the girls have gotten so that they know what it means to be a boy, what it means to be a man – and what it means to be human.
What we previously touted as virtues have now been reduced to the shadows. They appear in black and white westerns. They lurk in the alleys and gang territories of our inner cities. Any good that used to be squeezed out of boys’ natural aggression, competitiveness and bravado has been left to rot on the vine (or is relegated to the sports arena) while those natural tendencies (without discipline, encouragement and fostering) have “gone bad”, finding their outlets in things like rap lyrics, loners’ daydreams and diaries in which they play out their own vindication or “triumph” in thoughts of mass killings, violent video games and other indications of unhealthy subcultures.
One remaining bastion of manhood, where the natural tendencies of boys serve as a positive outlet, is sports. But not every boy is an athlete. We push boys to be their athletic best, to the exclusion of academics and other ways of fostering positive and balanced personhood, but sports is a dead end for all but the very elite few boys. They reach that cul de sac at some point in their lives, and they have to turn around. At that point, they are well behind the girls who now make up 56% of the college undergraduates in the country.
We have done well to focus on our daughters, carefully and intentionally watering and fostering their potential over the last several generations, but we have forgotten the boys. Most boys do figure it out, but many don’t. The ones who are left behind are broken, says Michael Black,
“The brokenness of the country’s boys stands in contrast to its girls, who still face an abundance of obstacles but go into the world increasingly well equipped to take them on.”
I remember the focus on girls in my youth going back to the question, “How can we make the classroom more inviting for girls to get involved in math and science?” It was a fair question, and one that needed to be asked and answered. We have done a pretty good job equipping our daughters for the future, but it seems that we have not thought about the need to do the same thing for our sons. We have assumed for 50 years or so that they had all the advantages. So they didn’t need any help.
Michael Black offers this solution:
“I think we would benefit from the same conversations girls and women have been having for these past 50 years.”
Personally, I am not comfortable with the idea of a male equivalent to the feminist movement. I don’t think boys need to be championed; they need to be embraced, both for their personhood that they share in common with all people, regardless of gender, and their natural differences.
I have raised five boys and one girl. I can well attest to the natural differences in aggression, energy, competitiveness and so on. We don’t do anyone any favors by pretending those differences don’t exist. If we don’t recognize the differences, we can’t teach our boys to harness the natural aggression, energy and competitiveness to use it in positive directions, and not just in a sports arena. If we don’t recognize the differences, we can’t teach them appropriate disciple that will help them channel these tendencies in positive directions, rather than to bottle them up – as if they don’t exist.
Instead of directing their aggression, energy and competitiveness towards women, which has historically been an issue, and against each other in destructive ways, we need to help boys find more positive outlets. As Michael Black admits in his article, boys who are not athletic or able to hold their own in the rough and tumble of the playground, don’t know where to express themselves. They are confused. They become isolated and withdrawn.
It may take another 50 years to find a balance in educating our children, a balance that helps girls by girls, and them to compete in a world that tends to favor men, side by side with a balance that helps boys be boys, and to be complete and healthy people in a world that tends to deny those things to them. We need well-rounded boys and girls, and that is going to require the same kind of intentional focus and effort on boys as we have given the girls over the last 50 years.
We need to continue to strengthen our daughters while not forgetting about our sons. If we can do that, I predict we can become a world in which school shootings are a thing of the past.
Societal change takes great effort and often results in upheaval. We are experiencing some of that upheaval. Perhaps, it is the fallout of that upheaval is the lack of balance that has resulted from the great effort spent on making girls competitive. The effort was well worth it, but we need to correct for the imbalance, or we will face even greater tragedies in the future as lonely, isolated, confused boys turn their natural tendencies into nihilistic anger and frustration and continue to lash out, feeling like the world has left no place for them.
We not only need to reduce the availability of guns, we need to reduce the number of lost boys with guns.
13 thoughts on “The Lost Boys with Guns”
Excellent piece Kevin. I am going to send this to my brother, who is a big anti-gun advocate. I would love to get his take on it. We have a lot of debates via email on what this country needs. I think this is a good direction to go.
One thing you don’t mention is the absence of father’s in the home. I believe this is a huge contributor to the problems boys have. Many are missing a positive male role model to instruct them in a proper way and give them direction. Our government certainly doesn’t offer anyone, sports stars are aloof in most cases and don’t offer that kind of support. I’m not sure about the Big Brother program and if that is still going.
Boys need that kind of mentoring and instruction so badly. That could be another key in helping bring them back to vitality. I sure hope we can find some kind of solution that will help soon!
I agree with you on that. Fatherless homes is a big problem in itself, and I think you are right that it contributes to the difficulties that boys have, in particular, in finding their ways in society that seems hostile and foreign to them.
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I like your thoughts (I came here via Mitch Teemley’s similar post). I think “boy problem” is a bit misleading, however. Maybe a parent problem. Definitely a cultural problem (which involves quantity of and access to guns, as well as popular entertainments directed towards boys and men). The problem comes when boys attempt to navigate our current culture. When I was a boy, I imitated the actors on “Combat,” played backyard sports, fought and wrestled with my friends, swung on vines in the woods, raced go-karts, toilet-papered trees and rang doorbells… I don’t see many boys these days expending their aggressions in this manner. Most are indoors, glued to a computer or video game screen, and if they’re outside they’re clutching a smartphone. I raised a son (a good one, thankfully), so I’ve seen it firsthand. We’ve created a slothful and violent culture and, with unprecedented availability of weapons, we’re now reaping the consequences. Our entire U.S. culture needs transformed.
Also (just a minor grievance): you said “gun ownership is an individual right” in the U.S., “built into our Constitution.” It’s not. The 2nd Amendment says “well-regulated militia,” and an individual is not a well-regulated militia.
Thanks for listening.
I agree on all points but the last one. The full text of the 2nd Amendment is this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The right of the people could be interpreted as communal or individual, but I am not sure it makes a difference. The courts have generally found it to be an individual right.
The wording is definitely frustrating, and our courts have never had a consensus, although currently, yes, it’s interpreted as “individual” right. There’s also the “security of a free State” part. There’s also the context in which this amendment was conceived (a newly minted country whose “Militia” consisted of farmer-citizens, fearful of another tyrannical government like England). I’m one who believes context and common sense are important, and that the laws should reflect the times and account for changing technologies.
As the sister of four gun-loving boys with very poor parenting–and two young sons of my own–I share your concerns. I believe that boys, worse than girls, are routinely and deeply emotionally stunted by their environment: fathers or father-figures are so completely steeped in the perception that emotions just aren’t really that important for them (my husband will attest that for most of his life, he shared this exact same view, and he inherited it from his dad). Women and girls have been taught that emotions are naturally their wheelhouse, so they more readily embrace exploring, understanding, and mastering them. Boys have been taught the *exact opposite* for generations: leave the emotions alone, specifically negative emotions (aside from anger, which is perceived as a source of power), and they won’t get you into trouble. You’re strong enough to push them aside, and you have no use for them. They are only a distraction. But this is not true: humans, all humans, are emotional beings. It is a trait deeply grounded in our very biology, across genders. Failing to maintain such an integral system will lead to it backfiring in the worst ways, and I believe that is a large part of the systemic problem plaguing men–old and young–in our country.
An *excellent* book worth reading to begin changing the conversation around emotions, specifically to address the fact that they are a fully *human* system innate to all of us, is How We Love, by Milan and Kay Yerkovich. It provides well-researched and well-documented information in a very accessible format, and it cuts to the core of the matter with great insight. My husband and I are reading it together.
Additionally, Dr. Laura Markham, PhD, has some incredible insights about how to raise emotionally intelligent, responsible, compassionate, empathetic children. My husband and I went to a lecture by her just last night, and it was a huge eye-opener. Her expertise is founded both in her academic study of clinical and developmental psychology, including the biological science behind it, and in the fact that she successfully raised two remarkable children with the principles she teaches. Highly recommended.
I agree with you on these points and believe that the answer lies partially helping boys to learn to deal with emotions
I came here via Mitch Teemley’s blog and after reading the NYT article. You make some good points. So do Pete (re the lack of positive male role models), and greenpete58 (re the lack of opportunity kids today have for burning off their energy, and the creation of a culture of sloth and violence). However, neither of these problems is unique to the USA.
I’m not convinced that the 5 boys and 1 girl you’ve raised form a large enough sample group for observing the “natural differences”. I’m not denying the existence of differences, but many women of my generation can recall being punished for behaviour that would have been routinely excused, or even praised, in their brothers or male classmates.
However, women have always had more incentive to question the messages – subtle or not – that are part of their socialisation because those messages are traditionally based on concepts of female inferiority.
So perhaps it would be a good idea for men to start examining the messages they get as part of their socialisation?
You for your comment. We all have a limited point of view, and we all use anecdotal evidence because that is the evidence most accessible to us. But it is naturally Limited in perspective. I am curious, as an outsider, what do you think has caused the unique phenomenon of school shootings over the last 30 years in the USA? The availability of Guns is certainly a contributor, but guns have always been readily available in the US, and school shootings first began within the last generation. What is it about this generation, and what is it about boys in the US that has contributed to this phenomenon?
Well, it’s not just boys in the US that are high risk. The difference here in NZ seems to be that they vent their rage or frustration on themselves. Check out these NZ suicide stats, and also see what the article says about role models for boys in a sports-mad country.
However, although NZ is traditionally a huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ type of place, and the level of (legal) gun ownership is comparatively high by international standards, we don’t have the sort of gun culture that the US does. Nor, as far as I know, does anywhere else.
When I read articles about the US gun debate or watch US movies, I get the impression that guns are symbols of freedom, strength, and righteousness: the real man’s solution to all ills. Which, when you think about it, is pretty silly. A gun is probably the only weapon that’s lethal in the hands of a small child.
I suspect there’s a degree of copycat crime in school shootings. They get you noticed. And I also suspect the number of AR-15 type rifles available to the general public has increased a lot over the last 35 or so years.
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