Darkest Night of the Year

The day before the Sandy Hook mass murders, a man in China attacked 28 kindergarten students and three adults, stabbing them with a knife. Though wounded and traumatized, none died. In Newtown, Connecticut, the gunshot murders totaled 27 people—20 of them children, most as young as age six. (And the murderer then committed suicide.)

These mass killings happen regularly now. And still getting gun control laws passed is a struggle. But there’s an overlooked, inseparable reason for that.We haven’t faced the fact that armed violence is a heavily gendered phenomenon. Men make up  almost 100 percent of the buyers, sellers, and users. Yet women are disproportionately affected by gun use, through domestic violence, sexual violence at gunpoint, threats, and other trauma. All six adults killed at Sandy Hook School were women. In fact, men perpetrate sufficient gun violence to give civilian women a higher death rate from guns than soldiers in war. Studies show women experience the presence of small arms in the household as threatening, while many men feel more secure around a weapon.

One journalist reporting the school shooting tragedy in Connecticut referred to the 20-year-old shooter as a “youth,” and I thought, there it is again. Throughout the 1990s and the first years of the new century, school slaughters, mostly by gun or automatic weapon, have been on the rise. The boldest headlines focused on Columbine High School (two shooters, age 17 and 18) or Virginia Tech (shooter age 24). The following school shooters—all within a decade period—warranted smaller headlines. A 17-year-old in Tennessee. A 16-year-old in Mississippi. Another 16-year-old in Alaska. 15-year-olds in Oregon, Georgia, California. 14-year-olds in Kentucky, Washington, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia. 13-year-olds in Oklahoma and Florida. A 12-year-old in New Mexico. An 11-year-old and a 13-year-old in Arkansas. A 6-year-old in Michigan. These shootings were described and deplored as “children killing children.” Notice the language. These killings were done by little boys, often deliberately aimed at little girls and female teachers. What must we be teaching our daughters and sons about the expendability of female people and the necessity to commit violent acts in order to be considered a real boy or a real man?

A decade and a half ago, Voice Male contributing editor Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, wrote, “Experts continue to seek the ‘deeper truth’ of school violence . . . But they continue to miss what is right in front of them: these are not troubled ‘teenagers,’ ‘youths,’ or ‘children,’ but boys. Men and boys are responsible for 95 percent of all violent crimes in this country. Moreover, nearly 90 percent of all homicides among boys aged 15 to 19 are firearm-related. . . .unless we confront the lethal equation of masculinity and violence, the deeper truths about school violence will elude us.” Naming the reality is the prerequisite to confronting it, changing it, healing it.

Yes, a tiny percentile of gun lovers are women. Nancy Lanza, the Sandy Hook gunman’s mother, was one, described by friends as “a big, big gun fan.” Divorced, she owned three weapons—for protection, she claimed, in case of burglary—including a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, used by troops in Afghanistan, absurd for home security. She took her sons to target practice for fun. She’s dead now. Shot in the face by her son, using one of her guns.

In my book The Demon Lover I wrote about messages sent to boys and men that their bodies are weapons and it’s sexy to use them that way. One of many examples I give is the Army training song, complete with lewd gestures: “Here is my rifle, here is my gun; one is for killing, one is for fun.” If society teaches males to confuse their genitals with firearms, their bodies become weaponized. By encouraging self identification with guns, we eroticize violence. A weaponized self becomes one’s very identity. Naturally, there’s furious resistance to ever relinquishing one’s identity.

Meanwhile, shrines spring up more and more often—candles, balloons, teddy bears—so people feel they’re doing something. But doing something would be creating an irresistible storm of protest to congressional representatives and senators and state legislators.

There are many gun control advocacy groups, from the Brady Campaign to the League of Women Voters. The International Action Network on Small Arms has a women’s network, the only international network focused on the connections between gender, women’s rights, small arms, and armed violence.

Enough teddy bears. This is a “women’s issue” and we need to intensify our activism on it.

That may seem like a shot in the dark, but eventually dawn does break, even on the longest night of the year.

Robin Morgan has written or edited more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including Sisterhood Is Powerful, which helped to catalyze the women’s movement. She was also an editor of Ms.  A version of this commentary was featured by Women’s Media Center (which she cofounded with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem on CBS radio in Washington, D.C.).