Men and Mass Shootings

Andrew Smiler believes that if we are to change the odds on these rampage killings, we might want to start by changing the messages we send to men and boys.

On Friday morning, we woke up to the horrible news that a gunman had opened fire during a midnight movie in a Colorado theatre. By mid-morning, a suspect had been named: James Holmes. A man.

He joins a dubious list: Jared Lee Loughner (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), Major Midal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood), Seung-Hio Cho (Virginia Tech), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine). Male, all of them. In fact, almost all mass killers have been male.

Federal statistics tell us that about 90% of homicides are committed by men. And about 75% of homicide victims are men.

I want to be clear: most men are not killers, even though most killers are men. Killers are a very small percentage of the population.

Tom Matlack and Jamie Utt have asked what’s going on, why the shooters are almost always male, and usually white. Statistically, being male “increases the odds” that an individual could become a killer (or a victim, for that matter). I think some of our cultural expectations for boys and men contribute to this change in the odds. They’re not the only things, but as the TV detectives say, they’re an important part of the killer’s profile.

We teach men to do, to act, to solve problems. It’s not enough to identify the problem; a guy should do something about it.

We teach men to not ask for help. Men who need help – whether it’s an “obvious” problem or something that he should be able to handle by himself or even just help on a regular basis – are told to “man up.”  Coupled with our encouragement to act, this means that when a guy only has one solution, he’s going to try it – even if it’s not a good solution.

We teach men they should not express their feelings. “Boys don’t cry,” we tell them. That doesn’t prevent men from having these feelings; it just encourages them to minimize or ignore them. Because they’re not supposed to ask for help, most guys don’t have much experience working through their feelings. Although a guy might be able to cry on a woman’s shoulder, he’s probably crying in his beer with his male friends.

We teach men that violence is a viable solution to problems. That’s the message behind expressions like “let’s go outside and settle this like men.”  It’s one of the messages that’s transmitted in all those action movies: violence is an acceptable way to respond to a threat, even if your own violence isn’t strictly legal. If you’ve seen the video Seung-Hio Cho recorded before he went on his rampage, he’s posing like some of those movie characters.

On Friday afternoon, we know very little about James Holmes, the Colorado shooting suspect. But we do know a fair amount about those other boys and men who’ve been accused and convicted of these kinds of shootings.

In one way or another, they all felt like there was an ongoing problem that couldn’t be solved. Maybe they didn’t ask for help with their problems, or maybe they asked once or twice, but there was no help to be had. Initially, they were probably sad or hurt, the result of being picked on, ostracized, or abandoned by someone who was important to them. When the situation didn’t change and those feelings didn’t go away, and when other people stopped listening even though the guys were (still) sad, those feelings turned to resentment and then anger. Anger can be energizing, and anger often leads to violence. From there, it’s a straightforward line to action, and that action can be quite violent.

In almost every case, the killer thought about what he’d do for weeks, if not months. Immediately prior to the shooting, the killer spends an hour or so getting ready: checking weapons, putting on protective gear, going to the site, making any last minute adjustments, etc.. The shootings are rarely impulsive, spontaneous, never-thought-about-it-before decisions.

If we’re serious about preventing these mass shootings from continuing to happen, we can change the odds by changing some of the messages we give to boys and men. We need to start accepting that boys and men are human beings, not automatons who know it all and can always control their feelings and act rationally. We need to start telling boys and men it’s ok to ask for help and to provide them with ways to express their sadness. And when they take us up on those offers and ask for help or share their feelings, we need to accept them for who they are and what they’re going through, and not shame them for not being “man enough.”

More on the Aurora tragedy:

Not a Joke: Why Do Our Boys Keep Up the Mass Shootings? by Tom Matlack

 The Aurora Shootings: What’s Wrong With White Men? by Jamie Utt

The Evil That Men Do: James Holmes, Aurora Colorado and Mental Illness by Shawn Maxam

What Makes White, Middle Class Men Kill? by Christian Piatt

Mass Shooting in Aurora, Colorado – Tell Me Why We Don’t Need Gun Control Again? by Josh Bowman

 A Tribute the the Victims by Good Feed Blog Editors

Photo Ed Andrieski / Associate Press 


About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.


  1. Doug S. says:
  2. If a black person commits a crime, its taboo to criticise their race. If a Muslim blows up a building, its taboo to criticise their religion. Unfortunately men aren’t afforded that same courtesy.

  3. Thanks for writing this.It is important and timely. Last week in Toronto, we suffered our biggest gun tragedy ever witnessed by the city. Our culture has so many problems and very few solutions (In Toronto, they are taking away after school activities for at-risk youth and replacing them with more police. More police results in more violent crime. I would love to see more resources for men to talk candidly about their male experience, their feelings of depression and isolation and acknowledgement of their feelings. There is no easy answer here. For myself, I try to resolve feelings of violence and replace them with loving feelings. It’s not easy but it is the only authentic way I know how to create change. Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world”. I believe that to be true. Here’s to a more peaceful future.

  4. Anthony Zarat says:


    If America wants men to value the lives of others, America will have to learn to value the lives of men.

    It really is not so complicated.

  5. Janet Dell says:

    Maria: I am curious, exactly what privilege does a black man in america have that you as a white woman does not have..I am really curious.

  6. This article was pretty good. Thanks for posting it. I wish you hadn’t gotten such defensive responses.

    As a white heterosexual woman, I have no problem acknowledging that I benefit from white heterosexual privilege, and that it hurts people of color and gays and lesbians. Men need to acknowledge that they benefit from male privilege, and that it hurts women.

  7. I just thought I would share a link.

    Interesting to think about.

  8. Eagle34 says:

    You know what, I’ll just cut and paste a comment from another thread because it applies here to your article.

    “Let’s say you do ask for help. But what you get is dismissal, ostracisation and shame. This is particularly still a problem for men who have been hurt by female perpetrators whether through physical or sexual means. Or when boys struggle in education, it’s only a blip on the radar and even then society tends to either downplay the issue or make it out as its their own fault or the fault of men themselves.

    The article talks about encouraging men to open up and seek help, not remain boxed in the gender stereotype of “enduring pain” and “remaining stoic in rough times”. Maybe you should also talk about society (men and women. Yes, women too. They’re not blameless either) accepting what they have to say instead of branding them whiners or, worse, sexist women-haters (if we’re talking about male victims of female abuse advocating for recognition and support).

    For example:

    1) More male abuse shelters.

    Response: “You’re taking away supports for women”

    2) Male abuse victims speaking out.

    Responses: “It was self-defense. You did something to anger her.”, “Come on, you’re a man. You wanted it.”, “You’re an anomoly. Women have it worse.”, “Women can’t hurt men. Size difference.”

    3) Boys struggling in education

    Responses: “It’s a class/racial issue”, “They’re doing it to themselves.”, “They see learning as ‘feminine’”.

    4) Anything related to Men’s Issues

    “Responses: “Men are still in power at congress. Take it up with them.”, “They’re still privledged white males and should check it often.”,

    In the case of me being hurt by girls and women in my youth:

    Responses: “You’re an anomoly. Boys hurt girls, girls hurt girls, boys hurt boys. Sorry.”, “You’re still priveledged and at the top”, “Girls and women have it worse”.

    Basically a repetition of other responses related to other examples but you get the idea.

    If you want men to open up more, maybe these reactive responses should be examined and dealt with as well?

    Thank you.”

    Yes, men should ask for help. That’s one side. I’m merely presenting the other side. No offense.

    • Eagle34 says:

      Sorry, I should clarify that comment I pasted was mine.

      • andrew smiler says:

        I agree Eagle34. I thought the last line of the article addressed your point, albeit briefly. “And when [men] take us up on those offers and ask for help or share their feelings, we need to accept them for who they are and what they’re going through, and not shame them for not being “man enough.” “

  9. Eagle34 says:

    Andrew: “We teach men to not ask for help. Men who need help – whether it’s an “obvious” problem or something that he should be able to handle by himself or even just help on a regular basis – are told to “man up.” ”

    Again, that’s only half the problem.

    Teach society to stop brushing men’s problems aside, blaming them for every social ill.

    Face it, when you’ve got a man who DOES seek help and he’s told that he should shut up because he benefits from a sexist culture, it’s a self-fulfiling prophesy.

  10. andrew smiler says:

    Very good point/list of examples Jonathan G. I wish our culture were much less violent, that list wasn’t so easy to generate, & I hadn’t heard about every one of them as they happened (so to speak).

  11. Jonathan G says:

    We teach men that violence is a viable solution to problems. That’s the message behind expressions like “let’s go outside and settle this like men.” It’s one of the messages that’s transmitted in all those action movies: violence is an acceptable way to respond to a threat, even if your own violence isn’t strictly legal.

    Don’t just pick on movies and television, as they’re not even half the problem.

    What is the proper way to deal with most-wanted criminal fugitives like Osama bin Laden? Send in SEAL Team 6 to blow his head off.

    How should we put a stop to Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which doesn’t even exist)? Threaten to bomb the crap out of the country. To stop Iraq’s nuclear and biological weapons programs (which, as it turns out, also didn’t exist)? Bomb the crap out of the country and invade. To stop an alleged imminent humanitarian disaster in Libya (which, again, may have been a wee bit exaggerated)? Bombs, again.

    What to do about Somali pirates holding American mariners hostage? Have a sniper team take them out.

    How can we interdict the illegal drug trade into the United States? With military aid and training to Mexico, Colombia and other nations. Essentially, with guns.

    What should the President do about a man accused of inciting terrorism? Send aerial drones to launch missiles to blow him up. And another to blast his 16-year-old son to bits. (Just ‘cuz, apparently.)

    How should the police serve a drug-related search warrant? With a paramilitary SWAT team bursting through the door dressed in body armor and carrying semi-automatic weapons.

    How should they enforce anti-loitering laws against American citizens exercising their rights of free speech and free association? With legions of armored cops, tear gas, truncheons, tanks, flash-bang grenades and other violent tactics.

    And to deal with college students sitting peacefully, blocking a sidewalk? Pepper-spray them in the face, point blank.

    Violence is so often the first resort of the leaders of our society. Is it any wonder that individuals take inspiration and moral sanction from their examples?

    • The Blurpo says:

      I agree thats the culture of power. Society expect that men to be the guardians of power (just like women are the guardians of sex) and to be violent and therefore a man is always loocked upon with suspicion.
      A man cannot afford to express weakeness, if he do, he is doomed beyond repair. And to be sincerely heard and be taken serious he must use force, he most show power, otherwise he is a wimp to be trampled on. A weak powerless man, is not a man, is a sub-human loser. To be held at the same moral consideration as a cockroach: annoying and disgusting (just look how society look at all the bums and homeless).

      The ultimate use of power is terrorism and or crazy shooting by the lonely guy like the one in the Aurora theater (dont be fooled, that actually a sign of weakness from the abuse of power by the powerfull; the gray mass or the governments/corporations ect). Just like the ultimate use of power from a governement is war. Power = violence!

      Men are powerfull, ergo men are violent. You are not succesfull in life, then you are a outcast. There is nothing more pathetic than a weak man, a caricature a buffoon a clown. Beat him with a stick, write kick me on his back, spit on him, have fun on him, because he is not a real human (nobody would dare to mock a powerfull person just out of amusement). If you lock a person in this box. There is little he can do than the classick outburst of sudden violence. The real perpretators are the people who support this meme.
      To fight this, is not to arrest and execute a random shooter, but to remove the reasons behind the outburst of violence (the culture of power).


  1. […] Men and Mass Shootings by Andrew Smiler […]

  2. […] of men and how they are affected just as much by culture …Aurora, ColoradoIn the article “Men and Mass Shootings” Andrew Smiler at The Good Men Project ponders how to change the messages we send to men and boys. […]

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