Guns and masculinity

Damn, I’m tired of saying this.

But the killings-by-cops and the mass shootings keep happening, and the same arguments reappear without resolution. And yes, I know that there are legal questions that have to be resolved in killings by cops, like deadly force criteria and qualified immunity. Yes, I know there are mental health issues involved in mass shootings. I acknowledge that we need laws that restrict the ownership of guns, that ban assault weapons, that disallow ownership of guns by people who have demonstrated a penchant for violence, that require registration of all guns. I even acknowledge that women — particular women, like Kimberly Porter, the cop who just killed Daunte Wright — also have guns and use them — like women in the military . . . I wrote a whole book that answers the question, “What about violent women?” I won’t try to reproduce it here. It’s just another feint-and-parry anyway.

I followed a friend’s thread on Facebook recently, one that began by raising the question of guns and masculinity, and — as always — the male interlocutors wasted no time in deflecting the conversation away from masculinity and back into the wretched, shopworn arguments around gun rights, personal responsibility, blah blah fucking blah. This muddying of the waters is tiresomely predictable; and that, too, is indicative of how men run away (deflect) when the conversation gets too close to the subliminal terror that underwrites men’s obsessive need to compensate for that terror with symbolic aggression — which includes guns.

It reminds me of how two equally scared boys confronting one another will begin by exchanging threats, escalating threats that nonetheless still hold back from a real grapple. Boys learn early — as I did — that the ultimate sin is to be a coward (defined as reluctance to fight no matter what the cause), and consequently — as humans who experience fear naturally — we come to fear the display of fear, which might signal weakness . . . which could strip us of our male bona fides. I won’t even begin to discuss how this fragments our personalities and cuts us off from the love we need like everyone else. That’s what gun nuttery is all about, a set of symbolic displays.

And many men live in situations where they can’t escape this dynamic, in worlds where this machismo is so prevalent that failure to align with it can get your ass beat. I remember an old black man I knew in my North Carolina 12-step days lamenting this once in a meeting, saying, “I’m sick of it, having to act like a damn fool just to keep people from fucking with you.” I sympathized and identified. When you are in a pit full of men, showing passivity or weakness can result in an attack. This is how we self-police.

The problem, of course, is that in this environment of escalation — and this kind of aggression-masculinity is sustained by escalation — one of those boys will finally throw the punch . . . or use the gun. The corresponding problem is that people need to belong, and most men are already situated in their own groups where conformity requires a mutual commitment to some version of masculinity. Then they pass that shit along to their sons.

Then there is our cultural production, to wit, television and film, where guns are the main instrument of redemption achieved by killing — as well as probative of one’s standing in the fraternities of men.

The perpetuity of war in human history has evolved into to this latest instantiation of an association between men and weapons. It’s guns now; it was swords once. We seem reluctant to talk about that, too. War privileges men even as it kills them. War is valorized in the interest of the polity — which exists primarily to wage war. War and the warrior become the field upon which we work out virtue. The virtue of the good warrior (think here of our veneration of soldiers and veterans) is synonymous with the warrior’s achievement of perfected masculinity — conquest masculinity. Real men conquer . . . enemies, nature, colonies . . . women.

Our refusal to emphasize the role of probative masculinity in gun culture — and in the US where gun play is a permanent headline now — contributes (negatively, at least) to our collective inability to make headway against the gun itself. We know we need to gain some control over guns. I, for one, support mass confiscation and destruction. But we can’t even succeed in passing the most anemic measures to exert some control over these death-dealing devices. Even leftist men are out there touting an “alternative” gun culture. We haven’t got a handle on it, because we refuse to acknowledge that with this social phenomenon the question of masculinity is absolutely central. The “issue” and the policy proposals keep crashing against the rocks of around five thousand years of war-produced masculinity, followed by the American myths concerning republican (in the continental sense) masculinity and frontier masculinity reinforced by a century of clever audiovisual indoctrination which equates the armed man with a kind of national masculinity.

There is a direct connection between cosplaying Boogaloo Boys and Joe Biden’s saber-rattling with Vladimir Putin. But alas, this subverts the present-day Manichean political discourse between Republicans and Democrats and all the subsequent polarities hatched in the same political nest. We continue to fight each other over personal responsibility and rights and collectivism-versus-individualism (delay, distract, deflect) instead of holding our own men accountable.

Gun culture is a hill that is only surmountable after we break down the great psychological wall of masculinity surrounding it.



Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”