Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model unrelated to this story.
In the days since the appalling murder of 20 school children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, the same questions keep getting asked around the world: why does this keep happening in the States? Why do Americans cling so persistently to their guns, even as the number of rampage murders continues to escalate and children continue to die? And why do so many of the shooters fit the same profile: young white men from middle-class backgrounds?
When horrific mass killings at Port Arthur and Dunblane rocked Australia and Scotland in 1996, Canberra and Westminster responded swiftly with new laws severely restricting gun ownership and buying back weapons already on the market. In both the UK and Australia, gun deaths plummeted. There have been no comparable mass murders since. Meanwhile, most of the deadliest rampage killings in US history have taken place just since 2007, with three major incidents (Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Newtown) in the last six months. Thousands more have died in smaller-scale eruptions of gun violence. And even after this latest horror, the only measures proposed in Congress this week are stunningly modest, focusing on the size of ammunition clips. A gun buy-back and ban is not in the cards.
Guns play a unique, starring role in American mythology. Our guns helped us win our rebellions against the British; they were the instruments of our independence. Australians, who for all their justified grievances against the Crown have never had a revolution, aren’t raised to connect their firearms with their freedom. While every other liberal democracy in the world understands that liberty doesn’t depend on easy access to an assault rifle, the American myth (for those who buy into it) makes that weapon into liberty’s only certain guarantor.
An example of the Bushmaster advertising campaign.
It’s a mistake to assume that most American men collect guns for protection against either violent crime or a tyrannical government. Bushmaster, the company that made the rifle that Adam Lanza used to take 26 lives, based its advertising not on the need for self-defense but on the promise of manhood. Until it was pulled late on the afternoon of Monday December 17 (three days after the massacre in Connecticut), Bushmaster ran its “Man Card” campaign. “To become a card-carrying man,” the promotional material read, “visitors to bushmaster.com will have to prove they’re a man by answering a series of manhood questions. Upon successful completion, they will be issued a temporary Man Card.” The accompanying flash campaign included tips for how to “revoke the Man Card” of a male acquaintance who had done something that smacked of the feminine, such as eating tofu or willingly watching ice skating. (Bizarrely, in one image the company briefly declared that “Adam L” had had his Man Card revoked because he “avoids eye-contact with tough-looking 5th graders.”)
The “Man Card” campaign can only work in a culture where white masculinity is seen not only as fragile, but under attack. The modern enemy isn’t King George III and his Redcoats; it’s the emasculating influence of a culture in which women and ethnic minorities have gained access to what were once all white, all-male preserves. (Though a “Bushmaster” refers to a kind of snake, the name instantly conjures up an image of an intrepid white male explorer in Africa, using his gun to fend off wild animals and natives.) The company is coy about what it is that young men are supposed to do with the gun once they’ve bought it, knowing that for many, merely owning it will be sufficiently “masculinizing.” The hope, presumably, is that young lads will think “as long as I own this gun, I am still an independent person, a force to be reckoned with, even if I never use it.” One gun is invariably an insufficient talisman, however. This is why so many American young men collect as many as they can afford, perhaps hoping to amass an arsenal to protect themselves against every imaginable threat (or, more honestly, against their own nagging self-doubt.) Adam Lanza brought so many weapons to the Sandy Hook elementary school that he couldn’t carry them all; forced to leave one in the car, he carried three, including his Bushmaster, on his rampage.
Fragile masculinity was not the sole cause of last Friday’s massacre. Lax gun laws (themselves rooted in our national myth of violent self-reliance) and mental illness also played a part. So too did class privilege: Lanza, like most rampage shooters in America in recent decades, had grown up in comfort in bucolic suburbia, the son of a vice-president at General Electric. Privileged white men aren’t the only ones to suffer from mental anguish, but as a result of our national history, they are disproportionately likely to imagine that they are entitled to foist their pain onto others in a terribly public way. Privileged white American men are also the ones most likely to feel the rage of “frustrated entitlement,” keenly aware of the disconnect between the affluence and autonomy they were taught was their birthright, and the anxiety and rejection that seems to characterize their daily experiences with others.
A screenshot of the Bushmaster website.
In killing others before dying on his own terms, Lanza, like so many rampage killers before him, lived out a perverse male fantasy of total control. When Australia saw that horrific fantasy lived out in Port Arthur in 1996, it took strong steps to ensure that such a tragedy could never be repeated. For all our expressions of grief in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, Americans – particularly white men – remain stubbornly enchanted by the freedoms that they imagine the gun represents. Too many of us still want our Man Card, and, in a way unique to our country, we will sacrifice our own children to get it.