What Elephants Can teach us About Gun Violence and “Toxic Masculinity”

Mass murderers are almost invariably male and white. On this account, the media feel free to make sweeping generalizations they would never make if mass murderers were usually female and black.

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Mass murderers are almost invariably male and white. On this account, the media feel free to make sweeping generalizations they would never make if mass murderers were usually female and black.

For example, consider these headlines following the horrific Parkland, Florida school massacre: “Toxic white masculinity: The Killer that Haunts American Life” – Salon; “Toxic white masculinity” – The Boston Globe; “Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Mass Shootings; Blame Men” – Politico.

It is wrong to cast so wide a net as “masculinity” over a phenomenon that affects a very small number of young men. After all, masculinity also accounts for the impulse of many men to shield women and children from danger, sacrificing their lives in the process, as football coach Aaron Feis did at Parkland. We should rather be seeking patterns of mental health or social/cultural formation that can guide us in predicting and preventing apparently random acts of violence.

Analyzing the fact that most mass shooters are white is a valid approach. Theories in this area abound. Many of the school shooters have shown signs of mental illness as well. From 1900 through 2017, criminologist Grant Duwe found that 59 percent were committed by young men already diagnosed as mentally ill or who had shown signs of having a serious mental disorder before the incident.

But while massacres rivet public attention and for understandable reasons, if we are talking about the larger picture of American gun crime in general, those murdered by mass killers represent a tiny minority of the whole victim population.

One common denominator amongst all perpetrators of gun violence is rarely mentioned, namely marked father absence in the home. Significantly, of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, seven were committed by young males since 2005. Of them, only Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.

But a high correlation between fatherlessness and gun crime has long been noted in inner cities, higher than the correlation between poverty and gun ownership. In fact, according to Dr. Frederick Costello, an engineering consultant in Virginia, who analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, the top three factors associated with gun homicide in America are growing up in a black community, not having a father present and dropping out of high school.

Fatherlessness is, in fact, the common factor in a range of negative outcomes amongst boys. The statistics are alarming. Fatherless homes are a fact of life for 90% of homeless and runaway children, 32 times the national average; 85% of all children with behaviour disorders, 20 times the national average; 85% of youths in prison; and for 80% of rapists with anger problems.

Humans are not the only species in which fathers play a crucial role in channelling the aggression of their male offspring toward productive ends. Elephants are known to exhibit human-like emotional and social behaviours, and they can teach us something about the link between fatherlessness and male violence.

Some years ago, officials at the Kruger National Park and game reserve in South Africa faced a problem of elephant overpopulation. They decided to relocate some of the elephants by airlifting them via helicopter to other game reserves. The harnesses they devised could accommodate juvenile and female adult female elephants but not the enormous bull elephants, so they were all left behind at Kruger. With the herd now thinned out, they thought the problem was solved.

But then the rangers at the Kruger elephants’ new home in Pilanesburg began, mysteriously, finding dead white rhinos that had not been shot by men. They set up cameras. The killers turned out to be marauding gangs of juvenile male elephants from Kruger, who also began terrorizing other animals, a rare behaviour for elephants.

The mystery was solved. Normally the dominant bull elephants control adolescent males during their mating-season periods of “musth” – frenzies of testosterone-fuelled rage. With no bulls to provide that “civilizing” influence, the younger elephants simply ran amok. The Rangers’ solution was to have stronger harnesses constructed and fly in some older bulls from Kruger. Within weeks, the violent behaviour in the young elephants stopped.

The moral of the story is that when boys have no fathers to model their behaviour on, they take the course of least resistance in acting out the aggressive tendencies that accompany the growth cycle. It’s easy to blame “toxic masculinity” for violence in our society. It’s more difficult to acknowledge that for many decades our cultural elites have downgraded the role of fathers and ignored the incomparable advantages children from stable, two-parent homes have over those raised without fathers.

Masculinity doesn’t just go “toxic” on its own. Gun control is all very well, but self-control is better still. If you want boys to achieve self-control, give them fathers.


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  1. Several years ago, London was treated to much the same thing – marauding gangs of young men. They started fights and fires,trashed businesses and generally menaced the population for several days running. And sure enough, most of them were fatherless as the press belatedly admitted.

  2. So we shouldn’t target men even though we know they commit 97% of public random mass shootings. Yet it’s ok to target mentally ill folks who some studies show are associated with random public gun violence. The percentage of shootings committed by those with a DSM diagnosis varies depending on which type of shooting one is looking at, but at no point does it come anywhere close to the 97% associated with men. So please tell me again, why are men allowed guns but mentally ill people aren’t? The statistics don’t back this up. This is stigma and scapegoating, pure and simple.

    1. You can’t compare the two. Roughly just under 50% of the population are male, can you apply that same number to the amount of mentally ill people? Of course not. Even if you could there are way too many variables in the category of “mentally ill”
      If you want to target the problem guns are present 100% of the time.

  3. “So we shouldn’t target men”. Interesting question Kate. Some might say that’s how so many became fatherless in the first place.

Barbara Kay

Barbara is a prize-winning journalist whose writing has also been featured in other large publications such as the National Post, C2C Journal Online, the New York Daily News, and more. Paired with a background in teaching literature, Barbara is also a member of the Board of Governors of the conservative student newspaper, The Prince Arthur Herald. Barbara provides sensational perspectives on everything from current news to her analysis on the sociological factors of sexism. A more in depth biography: Barbara Kay taught English Literature and Composition for multiple years, both at Concordia University and in the Quebec CEGEP system. She is a Woodrow Wilson fellow. For just under a decade, Barbara was a board member of the magazine Cité libre and a frequent contributor to its pages. to boot, Barbara has been a National Post columnist since 2003. Barbara is the co-author as well as author of a few notable publishings such as: Unworthy Creature and ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter's Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, published May 2011. However her more recent book, ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, A cultural memoir and other essays, was published in 2013 by Freedom Press Canada.
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