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American Guns, American Rage

The spread of a new honor culture and the rise of mass violence.
June 9, 2022
American Guns, American Rage
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 20: A student holds up her hands while taking part in National School Walkout Day to protest school violence on April 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Students from around the nation joined in the walkout against gun violence on the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School where 13 people were killed. (Photo by Jim Young/Getty Images)

Assault rifle bans.

Red flag laws.

Mental health support.

Background checks.

Locked schoolrooms.

Armed teachers. Armed doctors. Armed clergy.

Each a “solution” to America’s ghastly epidemic of gun violence.

As if it were so easy.

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly support a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks, and expanded red flag laws. All of these would, I am certain, reduce the number of people being lost to mass gun violence.

But I am less certain that these measures would reduce the number of attacks. Because the real problem underpinning our gun crisis is one no one seems to be addressing: the rage. Why is America so angry? Where does all this fury come from, and why does it keep ending in violence?

The fact is, America’s gun problem is about far more than the guns themselves. Extreme polarization in politics, rising white supremacy, growing rates of suicide and self-harm among teenagers, riots across the nation—anger permeates the atmosphere and condenses into the violence that fills our homes and streets. Conversation and debate are increasingly the quaint tools of a bygone era; now is a time when “real” men—cheered on by cynical politicians and the occasional female supporter—must stand up and fight for what is rightly theirs, or rightly should be.

The confluence of these trends and crises—white supremacy, the January 6th insurrection, the rising rate of school shootings, the rise in gun ownership, the mental health crisis among teens—is not a coincidence. They are intertwined, inter-influential, and most specifically, most decidedly, of our time—this very post-Facebook, post-Instagram, post-Obama, post-Trump moment.

In the 1990s, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen determined that a large swath of the United States—and particularly the South—maintains an honor culture that shapes the behaviors and ideologies of most of those who live there. Shame, dishonor, or—above all—humiliation in such cultures are not merely painful: They are not to be tolerated. They are to be avenged. The basic pattern is consistent across global and historical contexts where honor cultures predominate; and always, as Nisbett and Cohen noted, violence is understood as a legitimate response to lost honor.

This dynamic is apparent in the return of unconcealed white supremacy in the United States. As minority communities grow and white Americans lose their demographic dominance, their perceived loss of power borders on profound humiliation. For some, the election of a black president was a signal insult; for others, having to be supervised by a black man, or a Latino man, or even a woman, wounds their pride; for still others, it’s the decline of economic prospects that feels like an insult, an affront.

But now honor culture in America is no longer just a Southern phenomenon. Social media has created a world where one’s very value—to oneself as well as others—is measured out in likes and followers. Betrayals of confidence are cruel and widespread. As David Brooks noted in 2016, “The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.” The need for flattery and acceptance is deep and boundless and aching.

So, too, is the shame.

Add to this the fact that Gen Z, which comprises today’s high school- and college-age students, is the first generational cohort to grow up with smartphones and social media, meaning that the social culture of honor and shame is their first and best-known cultural environment. This might help explain, at least in part, why mass shooters today are younger than they used to be, as the New York Times recently pointed out, and why so many school shooters and other perpetrators of mass violence have a history of being bullied. Maintaining honor requires avenging the humiliation through a show of power.

The symbolism of the AR-15, the favored weapon of mass shooters, channels and amplifies this impulse: when the avenging young man picks up an assault-style rifle—the biggest gun, the manliest gun, the most powerful do-not-fuck-with-me gun—and feels the unrestrainable impulse to regain honor, to retake power, to exercise the energy of his rage.

The values of honor culture are emphatically male, even hypermasculine. The person avenging lost honor doesn’t just poison his enemy. He uses weapons like guns or swords or knives, or even fists. Big guns. Big knives. Big, swashbuckling weaponry that warriors and heroes fight with to reclaim their land, their rights, their honor.

And so it is with most mass shooters. My own research and that of others has shown that the majority of them have a history of domestic abuse, both physical and emotional. They may be victims, perpetrators, or—most often—both. They are people whose lives have often been defined by humiliation—the humiliation of domestic violence or of fierce bullying. Or they have come to understand violence as a certain route to getting what they want while reassuring themselves of their valor and virility, their invincibility, their power: This is how you keep what’s yours. This is how you claim your honor.

Because of this profound and painful connection between domestic and public violence, I believe firmly that domestic violence should be foremost among triggers for red flag laws: No one who has ever been convicted of domestic abuse should have access to a firearm.

This, then, is where I grow frustrated with our current conversations about preventing mass shooting deaths: Simply restricting access to guns will leave untouched our deeper problems with violence and hate. It will leave intact the links between honor and power and brute force. It will not avert our slide into a culture based in a vicious dynamic of honor and shame.

Nor will it stop people from plowing cars into crowds protesting white supremacy, or from randomly stabbing strangers on a train for Allah. It will not stop dragging deaths, like the killing of James Byrd in 1998, or machete attacks, like the one at a New York rabbi’s home during Hanukkah in 2019. Raising the minimum age for acquiring firearms would not have saved the eleven Jews murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, or have stopped a 21-year-old man from gunning down 23 people in an anti-immigrant attack outside a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.

So yes, I believe—strongly—that we need to ban assault rifles. I believe we must raise the minimum age to acquire firearms, universalize background checks for gun purchases—all of it. These are all vital measures that will save lives. But they are not enough.

Because we will not end the carnage until we find a way to end the rage.

Abigail R. Esman

Abigail R. Esman is the author of Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy and the Culture of Terrorism (2020) and Radical State: How Jihad is Winning Over Democracy in the West (2010). A journalist, essayist, and translator, she has written for Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes, Politico, and others. Twitter: @abigailesman.