On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, committed what was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. In the ensuing decades, we’ve become all too familiar with gun violence in schools. In the nearly quarter century since Columbine, there have been plenty of other mass shootings; only the deadliest make the headlines. Virginia Tech (2007). Sandy Hook (2012). Parkland (2018). Uvalde (2022). In March, Nashville; in April, Allen, Texas.
Last year, there were 51 school shootings in the United States. So far in 2023, the K-12 database has recorded 89 gun-related incidents at a school. Since Columbine, 175 people have been killed in school shootings.
Today, the leading cause of death among children in the US is guns. There are many dimensions to the crisis, but to truly reckon with this issue, we need to address the fact that the overwhelming majority of shooters are male.
Here’s what we know: bullying lays the foundation for school shootings.
In the aftermath of Columbine, the US Secret Service started researching common threads among school shooters. While the report they released in 2004 couldn’t identify a clear profile of a student attacker, they did find that nearly 70 percent of the attackers had experienced bullying and harassment at the hands of their peers.
Students around the country, some as young as middle school, have been protesting for stricter gun control laws. Here, high school students at Ingraham High in Seattle, Wash., demonstrate after a classmate was shot to death on campus last November.In a similar study in 2019, that number had risen to 80 percent and bullying was identified as a primary motive.
On one hand, bullying offers a clear explanation for school violence; one that has resonated with the media and general public for more than two decades. On the other hand, it’s misleading and distracting. Because nearly all bullied youth— and in particular queer, non-white and disabled youth who are the most vulnerable at school—ever engage in mass shootings.
If the most vulnerable to bullying are not doing the shooting, who is?
According to the research published over the last two decades, more than 97 percent of student attackers are male. That matters. Gun violence is intertwined with society’s messages about masculinity.
Mass Shootings Between 1989 and 2023: US = 138, Canada = 8
In 2020, Canada experienced its deadliest shooting in modern history, in Nova Scotia, where a man killed 22 people. In the days following the shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the media to avoid mentioning the name of the perpetrator, to not “give him the gift of infamy.”
It was a measured response probably intended to diminish the likelihood of copycat attacks. In comparison, the sensationalized news coverage that followed the Columbine massacre helped foster what became known as the “Columbine effect”—a chain of more than 50 related attacks in the two decades that followed.
Both responses, however, demonstrate the limited options available within public discourse to respond to this kind of senseless violence. Trudeau turned to gun control, while Columbine was followed with a push for zero-tolerance, anti-bullying policies. It goes without saying that gun control matters, and that bullying prevention is worthwhile. But neither effectively examines the significant links between masculinity and mass shootings.
Look no further than the perpetrator of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal. Before he began firing, the shooter, who specifically targeted women, declared that he was “fighting feminism.” Fourteen women were murdered; another ten women and four men were injured.
Rather than naming the intersection between masculinity and gun violence, newspaper headlines often portray shooters as ‘monsters.’ However, “by referring to them as monsters,” researcher Mia Consalvo points out, “a slippage occurs—”monsters” are not seen as gendered creatures.”
A faculty member in communication studies at Concordia University in Montréal, Prof. Consalvo says, “Until masculinity and its different constructions are better explored in general society—as well as in the news—we, as news audiences and citizens, will be blind to how these masculinities are linked—falsely and not—to damaging traits and behaviors.” For Consalvo, “ignoring these differentials, masculinity as a system will remain untouched, and opportunities for examining how boys and men might feel trapped in a losing system go unexplored. The events at Columbine High School and others like them demand better understandings of how masculinities are constructed, contested, and reaffirmed in American society.”
Her observation is affirmed by sociologists Michael Kimmel and Matthew Mahler who researched school shootings in the United States. They found that “nearly all” male shooters reported having been specifically harassed for inadequate gender performance. The profile that emerges, they conclude, is of white boys who have been targeted mercilessly every single day of their lives for not measuring up to cultural norms of masculinity.
“I am not insane,” a 16-year-old boy wrote in a note before he opened fire at his high school in 1997. “I am angry. This was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony.”
Stories like his are stories of “cultural marginalization” based on what it means to be a man, Kimmel explains. They weren’t good enough. “So, they did what any self-respecting man would do in a situation like that—or so they thought,” concludes Kimmel. “They retaliated.”
Through a gendered-looking glass darkly
From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only acceptable, but admirable. Teenage boys are four times as likely as girls to think fighting is a form of conflict resolution. Almost half of all high school boys in Canada have experienced some form of physical assault. One in five have been threatened with a weapon. Research has shown that boys are more likely than girls to be exposed to violence—and more likely to translate that exposure into the perpetration of violence themselves.
That’s why it matters to look at gun violence through a gendered lens.
To be clear, what has made school-based violence more deadly in the United States in recent history is access to firearms. But a culture of violence is at the heart of male shooters. All too often, the easiest strategy for regaining your status as a man is to commit violence against others.
“It was not because they were deviants,” Kimmel adds, “but rather because they were ‘over conformists’ to a particular normative construction of masculinity, a construction that defines violence as a legitimate response to perceived humiliation.”
School culture is part of the pattern of rampage shootings
All of this points to the fact that mass shootings in schools are not just about bullying, but also boys’ experiences of genderbased harassment, compounded by their immersion in a culture that normalizes and valorizes retaliation.
Boys are versed in the vocabulary of violence, but whether they choose to speak that language depends on their surroundings. Schools are a major author of that narrative.
After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, it was observed that the schoolyard shooters don’t need to be profiled—they can’t be. Rather, it’s the schools. Places like Columbine and Virginia Tech, where athletes and sports programs were privileged, and the teachers and administration invariably turned a blind eye to bullying and violence. They are places where school mental health services are missing because of a lack of funding, and where student hierarchies are maintained through relentless harassment.
I’ve seen this lead to other forms of physical violence in my hometown of Toronto: Devan Bracci-Selvey. Jack Meldrum. Jesse Clarke, young Canadians killed in the last decade. Unchecked sexual violence across North America: Glen Ridge. Steubenville. Vanderbilt—cases where student athletes gang-raped women. “It wasn’t just that (the Columbine murderers) Harris and Klebold— and other eventual rampage shooters—were bullied and harassed and intimidated every day,” Kimmel points out. “It was that the administration, teachers, and community colluded with it.”
If we really want to face the roots of gun violence in our schools, we need to look in the mirror. We need to collectively examine how we teach boys about masculinity, how we respond to the brutality of their peers, and how we influence the spaces they inhabit. And we need to do something about it.
The conversation might look like this.
When the problem of male violence came up in a school program run by Next Gen Men, where I work, an eighth grader raised his hand. “It’s not like we need to be fixed,” he interjected. “Nobody here would do anything like that.”
“I believe you,” I responded, “but I also believe that most of the boys who were in that situation would have said the same thing.” I thought for a moment. “Things that need to be fixed are things that are broken,” I said, then paused to look around the room. Then I said, “You’re not. You’re the best chance of stopping violence before it even happens.”
There’s a nuance there that isn’t possible in newspaper headlines, or in an unsafe learning environment. I knew that student well enough to know what he was getting at. He knew me well enough to know I meant what I said. Because of that, I was able to have a conversation about masculinity and violence while remaining connected to the young people in the midst of it.
This is what it looks like to put anti-violence into practice, to help young people—boys and young men in particular—make sense of the root causes of violence, and their role in challenging it. What came to the fore in Columbine in 1999 has become a pattern of violence that stems from the disconnection, aggrieved entitlement and rage rebellion of vulnerable boys and young men.
To change that, with our eyes wide open, we need to look at the ways young people navigate the violent tenets of masculinity, and we need to empower boys themselves to become leaders of the change we so desperately need.
Jonathon Reed is Youth Program Manager at Next Gen Men (nextgenmen.ca).
École Polytechnique and Gender-Based Violence
The 1989 École Polytechnique shooting, in which the shooter was motivated by a deep hatred of feminism, had a major impact on the movement to end gender-based violence in Canada. In the years that followed, Canadian media coverage of issues concerning women and violence more than quadrupled, an Act of Parliament declared December 6 as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, and a group of pro-feminist men organized the White Ribbon Campaign to raise awareness about the prevalence of male violence against women—an initiative that has since spread to 60 countries worldwide.
As political scientist Brian Lee Crowley explained in 1994, “If ever a single event could be said to have awakened society from its dogmatic slumbers, [the massacre] was it. Suddenly, the problem of violence against women, in all its forms, was given a focus and a face.”
Canada’s Response to Mass Shootings Opposite of US
The École Polytechnique mass shooting massacre in Montréal 1989 was a major catalyst for the Canadian gun control movement. Less than a week after the event, two École Polytechnique professors created a petition addressed to the Canadian government demanding tighter gun control, and more than half a million signatures were collected. Heidi Rathjen, a student who was in one of the classrooms the murderer did not enter during the shooting, co-organized the Coalition for Gun Control to pressure for a gun registry and increased firearm regulation. The parents of one of the victims got deeply involved. Their activities, along with others, led to the passage in 1995 of what was commonly known as the Firearms Act, ushering in stricter gun control regulations. The new rules included:
- Requiring gun owners to be trained
- Screening of firearm applicants
- A 28-day waiting period for new applicants
- Rules concerning gun and ammunition storage
- Registration of all firearms
- Magazine capacity restrictions
- Firearm restrictions and prohibitions
In 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the massacre, survivors, their families, and Polytechnique students past and present came together to oppose legislative actions by then- Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that aimed to end the registration of firearms.
While the long-gun registry was abolished by the Harper government in April 2012, the Quebec government won a temporary injunction, preventing the destruction of the province’s gun registry data, and ordering the continued registration of long guns in Quebec. In March 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Quebec.
In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government introduced a bill that restored the requirement for sales of firearms to be registered, even though some critics charged that the proposed regulations didn’t go far enough.
In 2020, in the wake of the mass killing in Nova Scotia, and while also citing the École Polytechnique massacre, Prime Minister Trudeau announced a ban on around 1,500 models of “military-grade assault-style weapons”, including the model used for the killings in Montréal.