For many Americans, acts of gun violence and mass shootings have become frighteningly common in daily life.
Kids are now being taught how to protect themselves in case a shooter enters their school, just as kids used to be taught to hide under desks in case of a nuclear fallout decades ago.
Instead of large events or venues being policed by an average-sized enforcement presence, large events/venues must have pat-downs, bag checks, metal scanners, and a large police presence to ensure there are no conspiracies or acts of mass violence.
Typically, debates over gun policy have two sides. One side argues that the right to bear arms should be upheld for any American citizen that wants to protect themselves. Meanwhile, the other side holds onto the idea that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has been taken away from victims of mass shootings and acts of gun violence.
While many debate which right is more important, others investigate the true root of the problem to find out why the U.S. is in the midst of this violent epidemic.
One of these investigators is Dr. Scott Melzer, sociology professor and chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Albion College. For the past 20 years, Melzer has been conducting research on the complicated relationship between masculinity and gun violence. In particular, he studies how men respond to threats to status and identity.
The Relationship Between Guns and Masculinity
When looking into this relationship, Melzer first asked a question that has been discussed for decades in psychological and sociological research: is it nature or nurture?
According to Melzer, the relationship between masculinity and gun violence is one based mostly on nurture: a man’s familial, societal and cultural background.
“The mass shooting phenomenon is solely an American phenomenon, and part of that is the availability of guns. But there’s other stuff going on,” said Melzer. “If it was a biological thing, we would see men doing this everywhere, so we know it’s not just male genes or hormones.”
Melzer’s methodology for his research includes detailed interviews with men from around the country in a variety of positions. This includes members of the National Rifle Association, members of fight clubs, stay-at-home dads and unemployed men. He made sure to sample participants from a diverse variety of groups to make sure that he captured a large span of male experiences.
Since he was able to have a large and diverse sample from around the country, Melzer tied together similar patterns among all the men he interviewed based off the responses they had to his questions regarding their sense of identity and masculinity.One of these patterns was that gun rights goes deeper than the literal right to own a gun. The symbol of the gun plays a role in men’s everyday identities.
“Guns are not just objects used to hunt and engage in self defense. A gun is a symbol and it means different things to different people,” said Melzer. “People who support gun control look at guns, and it symbolizes mass shootings and violence. Conversely, people who are gun rights supporters, perceive guns as a symbol of freedom, independence and self reliance. These ideas and independence really connect closely to ideas about masculinity.”
As Melzer described, these ideas about masculinity, such as independence, freedom and having control, are integral to the masculine archetype. Our society expects men to conform and attribute these qualities to their own sense of identity.
Melzer explained that if a gun is a symbol of these masculine qualities, then the threat of taking away the gun is also a threat to men’s identities.
“So much of this is about people’s sense of identity,” said Melzer. “ The first step, and oftentimes the last step, for men is internalizing, which can lead to depression, abusing alcohol or drugs, bottle it all up and eat away at them. Maybe destroy a marriage, other relationships.”
The negative effects of this masculine archetype are what second-wave feminists call “toxic masculinity.” Melzer emphasized that toxic masculinity is not about the toxicity that a man has, but the toxicity of the attributes society puts on men in order to create the “ideal man.”
“I think that the expectations we place on men are burdensome, onerous and impossible. We set men up to fail and their failures are bad for everyone,” said Melzer.
Race and Mass Shootings
While conducting his research, Melzer also asked why it seems to be predominantly white men that perform these acts of violence? Similar to his previous discovery, Melzer found that a threat to identity can lead to externalization which can also lead to acts of violence.
“[When there is change] there will be people who push forward and people who push back,” said Melzer. “Things are changing. People are responding to these social changes, and that’s leading to changes in behavior.”
What This Means for the Future
When interviewing men from around the country, Melzer noticed something different with stay-at-home fathers. These men tended to be open to living a lifestyle that prioritized family rather than being the breadwinner. Additionally, they are taking advantage of this time in the U.S. when it’s becoming more acceptable, even rewarding, to be a stay-at-home father.
“These stay-at-home dads, and other like-minded folks, are pushing toward a more sustainable version of manhood that’s healthier, more attainable, more realistic, and it benefits everyone,” said Melzer.
Melzer is very optimistic for the future of America. He claims to be a “happy warrior,” fighting to make the world a better place.
“Young people, in particular, give me all the hope in the world,”said Melzer. “Things are changing and I think mostly for the good on these issues.”
Melzer’s Future Research
Melzer’s work has been focused on masculinity and gun politics since he was in graduate school. He wrote two books on this relationship: “Manhood Impossible: Men’s Struggles to Control and Transform Their Bodies and Work” and “Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War.” He was also featured in a Washington Post podcast on masculinity and gun violence this past summer.
Now, Melzer is transitioning his research lens on an entirely new realm: Division III athletes and their identities, experiences and statuses as athletes. Melzer is currently running a pilot course to start off his research here on campus and will then transition to surveying Division III athletes nationally while on sabbatical.