Masculinity and Guns in America

With the beginning of 2013, many people make New Year’s resolutions to improve their health, happiness, or wealth. We make these commitments and hope for a better future. As an activist, I have a long list of resolutions and goals for the upcoming year, but, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, I hope others will participate in a necessary conscious raising effort involving the dangerous link between masculinity and guns.

On December 14, 2012, a twenty-year-old man killed his mother and then entered into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered twenty children and six adults. This incident is one of the largest mass shootings in the United States to date. People’s responses ranged from anger to sorrow to disbelief to a frenzied fear. Immediately, blame was allocated, and solutions were proposed. Some of the saner ideas thrown about included gun control, better mental healthcare, suicide prevention, and increased security on school campuses, but absent from much of the public outcry has been a discussion on the tie between masculinity and guns.

Statistically, the United States outranks the wealthiest nations worldwide in gun-related deaths. America also outranks every other country in gun ownership per capita with approximately 88 guns per 100 people. In mass shootings specifically, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. In the past thirty years, only one of the 62 massacres involved a woman as the shooter.  (Here are two sites discussing the history of mass shootings in the U.S.: The Telegraph and CNN.) This isn’t to say only men commit violence, and this isn’t to demonize men at all. Rather, the extraordinarily disproportionate ratio between male and female aggressors in gun violence speaks to an important issue, an issue that if addressed can help lessen the deaths and ease gendered anxieties. Clearly, the connection between gun violence and masculinity is real and needs to be addressed.

Worst Gun Death Rates. From Small Arms Survey, Geneva, AP

Manhood and womanhood are continually defined and redefined by society often with competing images of the ideal in play.  As historian Gail Bederman asserts, “Gender is a historical, ideological process.”[1] In moments of massive change, gender crises emerge and reconstruction of masculinity and femininity occurs. Historically, periods of anxiety over masculinity have often led to resurgence of a more aggressive definition of manhood.

Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917  deftly analyzes the changing concept of what it meant to be a man at the turn of the twentieth century. She argues modernity led to this shift. For most of the nineteenth century, society idealized a refined, educated, thin, self-restrained, moral, spiritual, and emotional man. “Civilized” men did not retaliate for supposed wrongs since that meant the man lacked the critical characteristic of self-restraint. Class and race obviously played into the perfect standard too. Still, Victorians placed value in feelings, etiquette, and intelligence. Think of the romanticization of tuberculosis during the period. Often men suffering from the disease were described as thin with flushed cheeks and maniac periods of intellectual productivity. Many considered their suffering ennobling. But by the late 1800s, urbanization, industrialization, the abolition of slavery, and women’s claim to the “public sphere” with “mixed sex fun” and the women’s suffrage movement altered the understanding of manhood.[2] In the wake of such change, a more physical male ideal took root. The “cult of the strenuous life” emerged in which athleticism, all male clubs, Boy Scouts, boxing, and college sports dominated. These activities reinforced the new masculinity and set new expectations. For example, the body of the archetypal man changed as well with the incredibly muscular Eugene Sandow earning the title “The Perfect Man.”[3]

Eugene Sandow as the "perfect man"
Eugene Sandow as the “perfect man”

In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs published what would be loved by the public, the story of Tarzan of the Apes.  At one point in the story, Tarzan yells, “I am Tarzan…I am a great killer.” He successfully reaffirms the new masculinity and ties it with violence and aggression. Overwhelmingly, people praised the new Tarzan and his primitive but aggressive physical prowess.

All-Story Tarzan 1912
The All Story. Wikimedia

Doctors also helped shape the emerging new view of masculinity. They started urging men to combat the disease of modernity (a disease called neurasthenia) with physical activity. These doctors argued men’s minds were overworked and only through bodily activity could the mind rest. Some in the medical community, like Dr. Stanley G. Hall, advocated the recapitulation theory and thought parents needed to teach their male children to act like savages in order to raise “real” men. A few even suggested boxing classes for babies.

In all of this, Theodore Roosevelt publicly performed the role of the new masculinity with his interests in hunting and his pride in military exploits. His hunting expeditions in Africa and the United States gathered national attention as did his participation with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Overall, the ideal man at the turn of the twentieth century became more aggressive and physical, and some, like Teddy Roosevelt, experienced “real” masculinity with gun ownership.

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt

After World War II, the Cold War created anxieties over family and masculinity. Time magazine wrote a story in 1959 that expressed this concern over defining masculinity. The article discussed the overabundance of westerns that filled the media. It argued westerns created a form of escapism. “A man’s fate depends on his own choices and capacities, not on the vast impersonal forces of society or science….Moreover a man cannot be hagridden; if he wants to get away from women, there is all outdoors to hide in. And he is not talk-ridden, for silence is strength.”  The article goes on to quote a sociologist who asked “‘How long since you used your fists? How long since you called the boss an s.o.b.? The western men do, and they are happy men.'”[4] Westerns provided an outlet for the male imagination. These cowboys communed with nature, fought, were physically fit, and used guns. While most men couldn’t copy every action of a cowboy, they could at least acquire a gun to assuage anxiety over their masculinity.

Gun companies tapped into this anxiety and saturated their advertisements with discussion of masculinity.

Help Your Boy Grow

In this ad, a young boy holds a Daisy air rifle. The wording reads, in part, “Millions of clean-cut American boys, now grown, had their first training in the manly sport with a Daisy Air Rifle. Mothers, as well as fathers, now generally recognize that this training makes for character and manliness.” It expressly states that “real” manhood requires a gun. Without gun ownership and usage, a man would, it seems, grow up effeminate and un-American. (See other vintage gun ads here.)

This older ad, I would love to say, is outdated. But recently, Bushmaster Firearms came under scrutiny for the same message. On its website, Bushmaster had a quiz that asked questions that would lead to a guy earning (or not) his “man card.” In the questions, they ask if the man eats tofu (yes would lead to being denied a “man card”). All this assumes, of course, women don’t want or use guns.

Bushmaster Firearm's "Man Card"
Bushmaster Firearm’s “Man Card”

More disturbingly, one question asked what would you do if cut off on your way to a championship game. The “correct” answer was to skip the game and deface the person’s car.

Toxic Masculinity. Wikimedia

‘At a Boy….It condones criminal activity and retaliation for a supposed wrong. This type of masculinity promotes aggression and violence. Moreover, a person could also have their “man card” revoked by doing something “unmanly.” In the picture for “unmanly,” the image features a woman. Now this gun company is also promoting women as a negative, the opposite of what any “real” man wants to be. Given the massive problem with intimate-partner violence globally and within the United States, this message is inexcusable. Women have to be valued and not disregarded as a loathsome “other.” The message Bushmaster Firearms sends to men is disturbing and is only adding to the culture of violence.  Thankfully, the company removed their “Man Card” quiz and certificate after public outcry following the Sandy Hook massacre.

The Sandy Hook shooting is a national tragedy, and the victims should be mourned. But, we can harness the pain and frustration to promote change. What we cannot do is say, “evil people will always be evil.” So many people gave into apathy and threw up their hands following the tragedy, but we cannot. We cannot promote inaction. Perhaps it is the activist in me, but I believe we must strive to make the world better even if we can’t completely eradicate the problem.

In the days following the massacre, hundreds of thousands of Americans signed online petitions, and President Obama responded. In his short video, Obama announces his ideas to address the shooting and the problems which contributed to it. He supports gun ownership but calls for “common sense legislation” that includes banning military-style assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips as well as improving security at schools and mental health care. He states, “because if there is even one thing we can do as a country to protect our children, we have a responsibility to try.” And, we do. We have that responsibility to do something, and in that list of what we should address, the link between guns and masculinity should be included. We need to initiate discussions and change how masculinity is seen. As noted expert on masculinity Guy Kimmel argues, “From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired. However the belief that violence is an inherently male characteristic is a fallacy. Most boys don’t carry weapons, and almost all don’t kill: are they not boys? Boys learn it.” We need to teach our young boys a different message. I hope you will think of adding this to your New Year’s resolution, and I hope you have a happy and healthy new year.

[1] Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1920, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995): 7.

[2] Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

[3] John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

[4] “Westerns: The Six Gun Galahad,” Time, Monday, March 30, 1959,,9171,892441-3,00.html.

Ashley Baggett is a co-founder of Nursing Clio and is an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. She earned her PhD in history from Louisiana State University in 2014, and specializes in women’s history, gender studies, medical history, 19th-century United States, and southern history. She graduated with a BS in Secondary Education, Social Studies in 2003 and then taught middle and high school for five years before returning to grad school.

7 thoughts on “Masculinity and Guns in America

    • Author gravatar

      Restraint and cool were both elements of Victorian era masculinity in the US, but sentiment and the expression of feeling were also considered important leading to a kind of “double manhood” that a number of scholars have noted. Contrary to the idea that men lost access to feeling, historian E. Anthony Rotundo called manliness in the late nineteenth century “Passionate Manhood.” Men went out of doors to hunt, play baseball and football, row, sail, fish and stayed indoors to box and wrestle (see the paintings of Thomas Eakins for example) because a healthy man needed to access his “primitive self” it was increasingly believed. It is not that men became unemotional but the transition appears to have shifted from an emphasis on sentiment and the attachment to others to the kind of aggressive and competitive spirit that promoted success in an increasingly capitalistic economy. This kind of emotion all too often can spill over into violence. And it is important to note, that need to succeed in the market place was sparked and complemented by women and the state increasingly taking over the role of nurturer, educator, and socializer of children. Men became marginalized as emotional figures in the home and their success was increasingly measured by their success as breadwinner as the nineteenth century folded into the twentieth.

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      Guns aren’t a proof of being a MAN. A real man doesn’t need guns to show his masculinity

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