Just one month after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, we find ourselves pulled back into an all too similar story. This time, the tragedy unfolded at a church in a small Texas town. As details emerge, perhaps the only thing that can be said is that such tragedies will continue to take place. They have become a fixture of our time. But why?
Aside from vague statements on the role of a domestic issue, we do not yet know much about what led to the shooting. It was several days before the news broke that the perpetrator had spent time in a mental health facility, although media speculation about mental illness almost immediately after the massacre.
When asked to comment on the Sutherland Springs shooting, President Donald Trump stated unequivocally that this was a case of mental illness. This comes as no surprise. As was the case after the massacre in Las Vegas, mental illness remains the go-to explanation for mass shootings.
This is particularly true when no other motive is available. Sutherland Springs is no exception. But, even when mental illness was a factor, what other forces are at play?
The mass shootings of our time are a complex phenomenon that call for a full examination of the various factors and trends involved. Turning to mental illness as a stand-in offers the illusion of understanding this form of violence in contemporary America, yet it fails to explain anything.
Put simply, the mental illness argument on its own has no teeth, even when it turns out that the perpetrator was, in fact, mentally ill. It gives no real answers, while also stigmatizing a population that is already marginalized, underserved and feared. And even well-intended calls for more robust mental health services fall short, as these would likely fail to reach people who did not identify or had not been identified with mental health needs.
If mental illness is assumed as the primary explanation, then what does it mean that virtually all recent mass shooters have been male? Why are women with mental illness – whether diagnosed or otherwise – not engaging in this particular form of public violence?
The shooting in Sutherland Springs suggests a need to revisit the question of gender in mass shootings, even when mental illness is a known factor. Like most recent perpetrators of similar tragedies, the shooter was male. He had a documented history of domestic abuse and was court-martialed while in the Air Force for domestic assault.
More recently, he had allegedly threatened his mother-in-law, and preliminary reports after the church massacre cited the role of family issues as a possible motive.
While masculinity does not cause mass shootings, there is no question that it is typically involved. The vast majority of mass shooters are men and we can certainly consider this common feature without vilifying an entire gender identity – and we should.
Moreover, we should deepen the analysis to consider the relationship between mass shootings, masculinity, and violence, rather than explaining them in terms of mentally ill perpetrators who happen to skew male. There is far more to the equation.
We are beginning to learn more about the mental health status or history of the Sutherland Springs shooter. We do know, however, that he had a documented history of violence against women and his family. In an analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2016, Everytown for Gun Safety found that domestic or family violence was involved in more than half of the attacks, most of which were committed by men. Even more telling, perhaps, are the examples of recent mass shooters with a seemingly separate history of domestic violence.
It is time to push back on the tendency to explain mass shootings solely in terms of mental illness alone. We must focus on what other forces are at play, including gender.
Mass shootings are our monster, reflecting our biases, tensions, policies, and perhaps failures. We have failed to curb them, relying instead into assumptions, stigma, partisanship and finger-pointing. Yet, in the melee, we have also failed to understand the roots behind these tragedies. We need more attention to the role of gender and gendered violence rather than falling back on narratives of mental illness alone.
By widening our focus to include the evidence at hand rather holding fast to assumptions and stigma, perhaps we can actually find some answers to this modern-day plague.
Elizabeth Lewis is the project manager for the Texas Center for Disability Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Waco Tribune Herald and Texas Monthly.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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