The Sandy Hook Shooting and What We Call Things

How different is “gun control” from “massacre prevention?” Or “gun violence” from “male gun violence?”

It’s 2:00am in Thailand as I type but I can’t sleep. The news is rolling in about the dead children. There aren’t many photos, but those few are tough not to enter into. Children with their hands on each other’s shoulders as they walk away from a scene that some have already called the second deadliest school shooting in American history. Tiny little lives with tiny little eyes that saw and tiny little ears that heard and tiny little bodies that felt things their brilliant imaginations hadn’t the hard experiences yet to imagine.

Commentary on my Facebook was typical. The heartbreak. The radical discussions of guns that should happen in between such horrible shootings and not merely immediately after them. But then this post came through:

It wasn’t necessarily anything entirely new, but it struck me in the moment of emotion: what we call things is damn important. But how important? I recalled the poetry lessons I taught on the hypocrisies of the USA PATRIOT Act, then thought of the inherent advantage of “Pro Life.” Veterans Day came to mind and then Armistice Day and then how the US Department of War was changed into what we know today: the US Department of Defense. Massacre prevention. What if during every debate we had on guns we were forced to say massacre? Would more minds make the natural associative leap to the images and emotions of the latest massacre? Surely that would have an impact on something, right? Then a response rolled in:

Dang. This got me thinking even more. What result might there be if we implemented this change? If blame for crimes was gender-slanted if, say, there was a 90% majority amongst the perpetrators of said crime? In this case, would the blame merely shame men, heighten how women rarely do such things or have any impact at all on anything?

I don’t know. All I know is that my study of poetry has sensitized me to the power words and their repetition. At what point does this and can this work on a societal level? At what point should we the people, not we the political think-tanks or we the majority whips, begin to start asking not how to change the conversation but how to change how we change the conversation?

My thoughts go out to everyone impacted by this tragic event.

–Photo: AP

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. One may think I’m anti gun control but that’s far from the truth. I just believe the focus should be on people first, weapons second. working towards creating an environment where guns aren’t necessary. Yes, its Easier said than done but a its route that would cure wounds instead of temporarily bandage them. Also, in regards to those of you who experience mild depression, anxiety, social issues, etc…. You’re not mentally ill. There’s quite a difference between someone who has a few minor issues in regards to how they feel/interact with others, etc. vs someone who is so uncontrollably psychotic that they’d commit such a horrific act resulting in the death of kids.

  2. A friend of mine brought up a conversation last night and Something he said caused me to begin researching this Adam person. I think We can all agree that this is one of the sickest crimes anyone could ever commit. Ive never seen or heard anything like this before in my life so its difficult to believe that this was simply a random outburst by a mentally ill individual. I’m not suggesting that Adam wasn’t mentally ill because he obviously was but a random outburst, I don’t think so. Something doesnt quite match up here , not that this type of incident will ever make sense but My point is, i definitely believe it was premeditated and the motive is so twisted I can’t even think about it. This is disgusting, using kids to gain vengeance. I can’t even go on talking about this right now. It’s too much.

  3. See, people are rushing out to buy guns. Several reports showed an increase in gun sales in the USA immediately following the presidential election. I foresee this trend escalating in the near future due to gun control debates sparked by this horrific incident. People who already owned guns or who thought about owning a gun were/are likely to rush out and buy one or more due to fear of losing the right to bear arms. There may also be others who seek to profit from all of this. The same amount of guns will be out in the streets, they’ll just be in different hands. Thats all I have to say for now, I’ll add to this later

  4. Mr Supertypo says:

    sad 🙁

  5. As a country, we need to re-evaluate our treatment of mental health problems.

  6. The point of massacre prevention would be that it is not the same as gun control. People keep focusing on limiting sales while most crimes are committed with stolen guns. Massacre prevention is changing how people think… Its taking a long hard look at our culture and fighting the source of the violence (whatever that may be) instead of props (guns). I truly believe that gun control without massacre prevention will just result in more homemade bombs and an equally high body count.

    • Mr Supertypo says:

      “People keep focusing on limiting sales while most crimes are committed with stolen guns.”

      If they steal guns to do their evil acts, that means probably there are far to many guns who are poorly guarded. Gun control impose but the sellers and the owner to keep a extra eye on their weapon.

  7. Cameron, Good article and excellent comments. I’m still feeling the pain of death and the increase in fear that goes with it. A friend stopped me at the post office yesterday after he heard about the killings. Like me he was feeling confused. How did this happen? What do we do? I said I didn’t know too many details yet, but my first response was to increase my feelings of love and compassion. Having worked with people as a therapist for more than 40 years, I know that most killings are committed by people who feel wounded inside and disrespected. There are many men and women who feel wounded and disrespected. Until I know more I’m going to reach out to those I can reach and give more of my love and respect. As my colleague Dr. Jerry Jampolsky said many years ago, “Love is lettering go of fear.” One thing we can surely do to prevent violence is increase our expressions of love in the world.

  8. We need to call mentally ill men with easy access to weapons, well, mentally ill men with easy access to weapons – instead of the “shooter”.

    Or we can just leave it at the gender level and pretend we are being insightful gender theorists.

    • I am mentally ill (depression and social anxiety) and have had access to weapons, fuck you for implying that as a man with a mental illness I am dangerous. I have zero desire to hurt anyone, only thing I am interested in is shooting paper targets and plastic containers for the sport of accuracy over distance. I don’t even want to shoot animals as I have no need.

      Millions of men and women who are mentally ill have access to weapons, hell pretty much all mentally ill people have knives at home.

      • Archy – no matter where you go and what you do those who suffer from Gross Disability prejudice will find a way to come out of the closet and wave their desperate abuse flag. I’ve even heard argument as to why people with Neurodiversity and or mental health issues should to be allowed to use Escalators.

        It’s worth remembering that abusers and bigots need only opportunity to show their true nature – they are irrational and even Arational. They are in many ways just as disabled as the people they talk against. Antisocial Personalities are often profoundly disabled and disabling! They will abuse on grounds of race, sex, gender, sexuality … it’s a sad fact of life.

        • Let’s try not to dumb down the conversation. Mental illness is an umbrella term much like cancer – there are many types and variations. We don’t have specifics in this case. We do have specifics on the past theatre tragedy, and it’s now pretty clear that he was a disturbed individual with unfortunate access to deadly weapons. I’m hoping that this is not another taboo subject that cannot be discussed – like rape and it’s multiple causes. You both seem to be hopping on and off bandwagons at will…buckle down guys.

          • Ellisa – I aint hopping on and off band wagons – mainly due to being a cripple and jumpin on and off anything is beyond me!

            I don’t do or stand for discrimination around disability – be that deliberate or through crass ignorance which people have failed to address through eduction. That Crass Illiteracy all to often links mental health to negative event … it’s one of the last bastions of bias – race has gone – sexuality is being tumbled – blaming ladies is just not de rigueur – but when it comes to all else including guns Men is Open Season all year!

            So when it comes to being crassly and foolishly lavish with the Blame Brush men and mental health are the paints of choice.

            Buckle down? I’ve been strapped into me stealth bomber for months and I do wish for some relief. is there a spare crew anywhere?

          • Did you consider that maybe I don’t want kneejerk reactions to the tragedy making it difficult for me to get a gun because I wanna shoot paper targets and I happen to be depressed? My life is too valuable to waste on a shooting and I’d never get my enemies together in a room anyway, nor do I wanna kill them. I don’t care if the gunrange has a safe to keep the gun if needs be, I just wanna be able to shoot paper targets without my mental health coming into question because I get nervous around people and it makes me wanna avoid them, not wanna hurt them.

  9. Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius – the expression of one thing is the exclusion of the other.

    Gun Control = Gun Important and even indicates that guns are out of control.

    Interpretatio Cessat in Claris – Interpretation stops when a text is clear.

    Massacre Prevention – Well it is clearer, and even bigger than a single gun or person. Even then some would wish to make the issue smaller by calling it “School Massacre Prevention”.

    Words and thinking are so tricky. It’s so easy to use words and leave others out of the picture.

  10. What point would calling it male violence actually accomplish? It’s not common to manhood, the extreme vast majority of men do not commit the crime. Massacres are not unique to men, we can discuss why there are more male serial killers but it’s not a common male trait. When we call it male gun violence do we not reinforce the stereotype of the violent male? Are the majority of men violent? That’s the key thing to remember.

    • Mr Supertypo says:

      Maybe in a subtle way the violent male stereotype, is co-responsable for these unfortunate events. When society bombards you with the message that you are dangerous and a criminal just waiting the right occasion to strike, you may end up believing it.

  11. Such a short post but insightful. Indeed, nowadays our reaction becomes more a political or academic discussion rather than what really matters- this is in spite of the sincerity of many who do this.
    This is another sad day for everyone especially parents- all over the world.

  12. I am a mature woman – at 65 some would call me old – and I have both daughters and sons, all grown. I learned along the way that the personality of the child may be shaped by their gender, and what society thinks their gender should be; but that birth order and personality and pure randomness can have even more impact. I believe that none of my children is capable of vicious acts, but I know that at one time each has been angry enough to be violent.
    It may be that women do not commit this particular type of crime, but women are quite capable of horrific acts of cruelty and violence; much of it against children. Stating that, statistically speaking, this is an exclusively male form of violence should not cause all men to be labelled violent, any more than saying that women are more likely to commit infanticide labels all mothers as such. It is this knee-jerk extrapolation of the specific to the general which holds back the study of the causation of these horrible acts, and hinders their prevention.

  13. The issue is not males, men, or masculinity. When we try to view violence through a gendered lens it completely distorts the issue, and takes us farther away from causes and choices we can have a real impact on (unlike gender, which few of us choose).

    Cultural tolerance of abuse and trauma in all its forms lead to sharply higher rates of violence, suffering, & both emotional & physical damage to victims and ultimately to society. Saying this is a male problem denigrates all men (regardless of who they are), puts us all on the defensive without in any way making things better. Worse, it stigmatizes those males who have been victimized and are most in need of support, making it far more likely they will remain silent and not seek help.

    • Cameron Conaway says:


      Great insights here. I agree on all fronts. However, I think there is a difference between calling an instance like this “male gun violence” and speaking of male gun violence in the context of male gun violence. The former can absolutely do what you say, but what of the latter? Is there not reason to engage in this? It is no pure irony that such shootings are carried out almost exclusively by men. Imagine the discussion if school shootings were mostly carried out by black men? Race, whether rightly or wrongly, would factor front and center and because of it we may get at different and deeper insights regarding what’s happening in “Black America.” Documentaries would be made. Artists would swirl their creativity around the issue. It seems genderizing, from time to time and when it’s appropriate, can have some benefits, yes? “Men shoot up schools,” is not a fair statement whatsoever, but it’s also not where most people want to take the discussion.


      • Cameron,

        I think “Men shoot up schools” it is very much where a loud and vocal portion of the commentariat wants to take this. In my opinion, acts of violence and abuse are choices made by individuals, and every individual regardless of gender, race, skin color, socioeconomic status (and any other way of lumping people into groups) is capable of making their world better or making their world worse. That may seem a shallow statement, but I think it’s truly vital that we stop messing around looking for patterns when doing so actually exasperates the problem.

        We cannot hope to arrive at solutions when our cultural assumptions about the causes of violence serve to divide us even further. Embracing overly broad generalizations distracts us from addressing the real causes of dangerous behavior. The problem is not “men are more violent”. The problem is that THIS man made THESE choices, and until we get to the bottom of why he did and he did AND how he slipped through the cracks of our social programs designed to protect us we will make precious little progress in improving our ability to stop the next tragedy from happening.

        Are there times where looking at the broad categories can help? Sure. When were addressing deep, fundamental injustices then seeing how our society and the policies we embrace cause more harm than good help us address wrongs on a national level. But a tragedy like what happened yesterday is not the same kind of wrong as a whole segment of the population being discriminated against and disenfranchised.

        The rush to blame “men” or something about “masculinity” is nothing more than a desperate rush to grasp at any form of explanation that will allow people to absolve themselves of a sense of responsibility for what happened. When confronted with the horrible truth that our lives and sense of safety can be ripped asunder in the blink of an eye, we instinctively demand an explanation why. All I’m saying is that we will not find the answer by looking critically at “masculinity”. We will find it by looking into the details of this person’s life.

  14. If you want to eliminate school shootings there is a very simple step you could take though it probably violates the constitution….ban media coverage of all mass shootings.

  15. I am horrified by the tragedy of what happened to the children in Connecticut. Innocent children, and teachers. I am also against using photos such as the above woman, who is obviously out of her mind with worry about one or more loved ones involved in this horrifying event. Her photo has been “shared” across communication networks so often today. I feel that whoever took this photo, may have thought that they were capturing the essence of the emotion felt by individuals who were touched by this horrific event first hand. But, I feel for this woman for her subjection to the invasion of her privacy in what should have been a very private moment. Does it help us to better understand and identify with what happened? I don’t think so. I think that if you tell any American that 20 children and 6 teachers lost their lives to a senseless shooting spree, we are all going to get it… get the grief…feel the loss… share the sorrow.

    • Deanna Ogle says:

      “I am also against using photos such as the above woman, who is obviously out of her mind with worry about one or more loved ones involved in this horrifying event. Her photo has been “shared” across communication networks so often today. I feel that whoever took this photo, may have thought that they were capturing the essence of the emotion felt by individuals who were touched by this horrific event first hand. But, I feel for this woman for her subjection to the invasion of her privacy in what should have been a very private moment.”

      Welcome to the ethical grey lines of photojournalism. If we took this same stance overseas, we would never see devastation, war, and genocide. Yes, it’s gruesome, but in some case, unless we see it in front of our own eyes we’ll just pretend something bad happen off far away somewhere and brush it off.

      There’s a fascinating documentary called “Dying to Tell the Story” about a young photojournalist that died in the midst of action in Somalia. Through the documentary they talk to several photojournalists from across the world that wrestle with that question. If you like documentaries at all, it was utterly fascinating.

  16. Yeah…this sort of concept would fit right into Boston’s suicidal trend-driven liberalism. In Boston, it is fully taboo to say “the murderer is a black-male, 6’3″ and approximately 220 lbs and 18 years of age” when alerting the public about a loose and active criminal. The “black-male” part must never be spoken of by any of the media.

    So the leap to blame “men” certainly will not be even a slight challenge.

  17. I really appreciate this sentiment. My wife and I talked today (right after hearing about this tragic event) how most violent acts (either local or global) are more often the result of Men. It makes me sad and embarrassed how as a Man we are given the pass and society looks at either the religious, cognitive, or socio-economic status of the individual committing the act…but rarely look that the common theme (men). We need to re-evaluate what it means to be a man and what our society will tolerate from us, or else these headlines will become the standard (not the exception)

    • Disagree. This is the fallacy of the undistributed middle: All men are male. The vast majority of mass-shooters are male. Therefore, all men are mass-shooters. You might as well say: All penguins are birds. The vast majority of birds fly. Therefore, all penguins fly.

      I do believe it would be fair, however, to inquire as to how the factors that shaped these men interacted with cultural and/or biological masculinity to drove them to violence in a situation in which a woman might have acted differently. Or to inquire as to whether these factors for some reason only apply to men.

      • Just to clarify: The Statement “All Shooters are Men” is not composed of two propositions or contain an “If”, “Then” connective. So the fallacy of the Undistributed middle would not apply to the validity (or invalidity) of the statement. It’s like saying “all squares are rectangles”, which is true, but as we know, all rectangles are not squares. Obviously, if I say “all Shooters are men,” I am not therefore saying “all men are shooters.”

    • Random_Stranger says:

      Wow, can’t disagree more. In light of this tragedy, I certainly think we should explore all forces common to these heinous acts, such as access to guns and mental health, and yes… the masculine mystique.

      But in examining masculinity, we have to be careful to isolate forces endogenous from forces exogenous to his biology. Both forces may shape his choices and perceptions, however only the exogenous encourages a critical analysis of the context in which his choices are made under matriarchy (that’s my pet name for the social forces imposing the self-destructive male gender caste upon all men and boys –hope it sticks!) In contrast to your assertion however, we actually have a tendency to limit the failings of men and boys to something endemic or endogenous to his biology; encouraging a form of gender eugenics reducing men and boys to something intrinsically inferior.

      By contrast, I’d argue that women, under feminism, have enjoyed a far greater tendency to analyze her gender underperformance or behavioral aberration within an exogenous social context instead of an endogenous biological construct. When women and girls fail, we ask what did patriarchy do to them, when men and boys fail we ask what’s wrong with men and boys?

      The fact is, we as a society are simply uncomfortable accepting the idea that the choices of men are shaped by our culture, and that culture has not always been interested in maximizing the well being of men, resulting in sometimes tragic, self-destructive choices like mass shootings. We won’t make any progress here though, until we reject feminism and accept that the gender construct is s a mutually imposed and reductionist force encouraging self-destructive choices and limiting the potential of both genders.

      • “When women and girls fail, we ask what did patriarchy do to them, when men and boys fail we ask what’s wrong with men and boys?”

        Gonna take more processing before I have anything to add. Just wanted to pop in and let you know how much this statement resonated with me.

      • After reading all the comments, I don’t think we actually disagree. We are all recognizing that some sort of relationship exists between the current manifestation of “Maleness” and a propendency to be a shooter. I think we all agree that it would be useful to explore this relationship, both in order to prevent terrible violence like this and in order to create a healthier cultural definition of what it means to be a man in general.

  18. Jeff Swain says:

    Hi Cameron,
    Thanks for writing this. Words touch us on the emotional level. They speak to the subconscious. They have the power to define a thing. Lori Day’s observation is poignant.


    • Thanks, Jeff.

      I thought more last night and it seems that these events, these recurring and brutal events, are a type of language into and of themselves. They themselves (and the images and the videos, etc) are the repetition. At some point, the interval between such shootings is going to shorten and/or the brutality will keep worsening to the point where the repetition forces us against a wall. It will be like a broken record and we’ll be desperate to stop it. True and difficult change rarely comes unless backs are against walls, unless there is desperation. Due to various reactions I’m seeing I think there are more desperate people now than ever. The crime wasn’t just a new cut, it was a cut into a cut. The wound is getting deeper.



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