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The Georgia Shootings and America’s Misogyny Crisis

Opposition to the Violence Against Women Act is part of a larger Republican hypocrisy about masculinity, guns, and hatred of women.
March 23, 2021
The Georgia Shootings and America’s Misogyny Crisis
Activists demonstrate against violence towards women and Asians following last Tuesday night's shootings on March 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead, including six Asian women. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Obvious evil can be an opportunity for moral clarity. It can also be an occasion for revealing moral turpitude—as the House GOP demonstrated last week.

On Wednesday, 172 House Republicans voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The House vote, which took place one day after the murder of eight people in Georgia, six of whom were women of Asian descent, was an exhibition of the moral collapse of the Republican party.

Republicans care more about guns than they care about women. That is the takeaway from their opposition to VAWA. And even though 29 GOP representatives defected and joined the entire Democratic caucus in supporting the bill—so that it ultimately passed with bipartisan support—VAWA will likely face a fierce battle in the Senate.

VAWA provides federal funding for investigations into violent crimes against women and creates a civil cause of action in cases where the perpetrator doesn’t face criminal liability. The original legislation also created the Office of Violence Against Women in the Justice Department. After the law lapsed in 2019, then-candidate Joe Biden—who wrote the original bill in 1994—vowed to make its renewal part of his legislative agenda as president.

Biden was able to move forward with his pledge despite the massed opposition from Republicans, whose objections focused on two aspects of the legislation that weren’t part of previous versions. One of the provisions addresses equal treatment for transgender women at women’s shelters; the other addresses the “boyfriend loophole” for abusers’ access to firearms.

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus and a victim of domestic abuse herself, has been vocal in opposition to the bill and its perceived lack of bipartisanship (although, again, it passed the House with bipartisan support). She and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have detailed their opposition to these provisions.

Lesko’s and Ernst’s priorities are revealing. They care more about policing who is or isn’t treated by the government as a woman than protecting those who are suffering physical abuse. To allow these objections to swallow the whole bill is cynical and cruel. Whether you think transwomen are women or not doesn’t change the fact that they frequently are specifically targeted victims of violent crimes. To insist that a battered person is a threat to fellow victims based on their biological sex and their body—which, if they are seeking shelter, has in some way been broken or attacked—is hard-hearted and inhumane.

The Republicans’ hypocrisy is just as clear when it comes to their gripes about closing the “boyfriend loophole”—the discrepancy in federal law that bars husbands who abuse their wives from owning guns, but fails to apply those restrictions to boyfriends who abuse their girlfriends. As a legal matter, the loophole isn’t exactly simple to close—the law can’t capture every possible shade and scenario of domestic relationships—but it’s not nearly as complicated as Republicans are making it.

Thanks largely to the National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts, congressional Republicans are so afraid of any legislation within sniffing distance of the Second Amendment that they would rather see more women die at the hands of abusers than make even minor procedural concessions on gun control.

For years the NRA hasn’t been interested in responsible advocacy on behalf of gun owners. If they were, they would recognize that advocating for the rights of abusers to own guns reflects pretty poorly on the vast majority of American gun owners who don’t abuse their family members. But driven by culture-war politics and the relentless imperative of grift, the organization has staked out maximalist positions that may ultimately redound against its members.

The NRA really really wants you to think this is not a guns issue, but a mental health issue. It is a misdirection. They never fully define mental illness, but assert that any crime committed where a gun happens to be involved (always in the passive voice) is an occasion to investigate why the troubled individual who carried out whatever latest massacre felt so alienated from society he would be driven to extreme behavior. By blaming society for ostracizing men not only do the NRA and likeminded firearm extremists manage to abdicate the individual offender of his (and it is almost invariably “his”) actions—but more importantly, they take the focus off the weapon he used.

It is also worth noting that the stigma of “mental illness” is felt most by women, not men. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “the prevalence of mental illnesses in men is often lower than women.” And yet despite the discrepancy in rates of mental illness between the genders, men are responsible for almost all mass shootings.

Why, if women are statistically more mentally unwell, are they not the ones perpetuating more violence and harm? For the NRA to push a narrative that those who commit mass gun violence are mentally unwell has the effect—perhaps intended—of distancing the violence they perpetrate from troubling questions about American masculinity.

We Americans are prolific at diagnosing mental disorders and pathetic at helping those coping with them. But mental illness, as a matter of both individual and public health, is an incredibly complicated problem and not the driving factor behind violence against women.

The bigger, more insidious problem underlying violence against women—including the murders in Georgia—is misogyny. But misogyny itself is not a mental illness. Just as it’s important not to moralize disease, it’s important not to pathologize evil. Some thoughts and actions—and indeed, people—are just bad.

If the root cause of violence against women in America is mental illness, why are so many domestic abusers police officers? Does it stand to reason that the country’s police forces have rampant mental illness problems?

Or is it a rage problem? An entitlement problem? An impotence problem? A masculinity problem? A problem that manifests itself only in the privacy of a domestic space over which they have total control? A problem that is only realized on the bodies of women they love—bodies they feel they possess and have the right to act upon?

No, it is misogyny and the way it is a part of our culture. It works in tandem with racism and often magnifies other prejudices. It even harms men—some research suggests that misogyny is associated with higher rates of mental health trouble for men.

The harm that toxic masculinity does to men is not an excuse for the slaying of women. The Georgia shooting suspect reportedly told police he was a “sex addict” and committed mass homicide as a way of expunging “temptation.” At a press conference, the spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff sounded all too eager to sympathize, remarking, “He was fed up, at the end of his rope. He had a bad day, and this is what he did.”

O.J. is kicking himself that he never thought of that defense.

“He didn’t have a ‘sexual addiction’—he had racist sexualized fantasies about dominating Asian women,” wrote Minh-Ha T. Pham in a series of tweets. “In other words, he had fantasies of white supremacy and acted on them. Name it.”

Hayes Brown of MSNBC points out that the rest of the world not only acknowledges the violence against women but they have a word for killings like the one in Georgia with predominately female victims: “femicide.” He asks “why we don’t talk about ‘femicide’ as a thing in the US the same way we do in Latin America?” HuffPost writer Melissa Jeltsen replies that because “most fatal violence against women is perpetrated by intimate partners, it’s more common to hear domestic homicide.”

An analysis by Bloomberg News found, “between 2014 and 2019, almost 60% of shooting incidents with four or more casualties involved an aggressor with a history of—or in the act of—domestic violence.” Not only that they found those shootings to be the most lethal:

Shootings committed by domestic abusers aren’t only routine, they’re among the deadliest. The higher the casualty count, the more likely the perpetrator was reported to have had a history of domestic violence or violence against women, Bloomberg’s analysis found. In shootings with no fatalities, only 15% of aggressors had records of beating, harassment or other acts of brutality at home. In those with six or more deaths, that number shot up to 70%. [Emphasis added]

The NRA wants you to believe the answer to all of this is more guns since they know it’s not really about mental illness. The answer is always more guns. It’s almost like their entire raison d’être is to sell guns.

Which brings us to some Republicans’ simple, elegant solution to the depravity of man: arm women. This might be a good place to drop that I am pro-gun. I do, in fact, support Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. I’ve even gone shooting at the NRA range in Virginia. I have a 7.62 bullet beer opener on my keychain. I grew up in a household where my grandfather said the only security system he needs is the sound of cocking a shotgun in the face of danger. Scares ’em right off.

These are the types of personal anecdotes and posturing you have to submit if you want to challenge or suggest anyone anywhere experience restricted access to lethal weapons in America lest you be accused of advocating for the government to raid law-abiding citizens’ homes to confiscate guns and burn the Constitution. So again, I like guns.

I just don’t want abusers to have them.

While yes, I am for more women owning firearms, arming victims against their abusers is colossally—and obviously, if you think about it for more than ten seconds—stupid. In a 2014 review of the relevant social-science literature, Michigan State University researchers wrote, “Advocates for arming victims are naïve to the dangers caused by gun presence in abusive relationships. . . . Victims who introduce a firearm into an already volatile relationship place themselves at risk of having the gun turned on them by their abuser.”

Relatedly, a 2014 meta-analysis found, as Evan DeFilippis noted in the Atlantic, “that women with access to firearms become homicide victims at significantly higher rates than men”:

It has long been recognized that higher rates of gun availability correlate with higher rates of female homicide. Women in the United States account for 84 percent of all female firearm victims in the developed world, even though they make up only a third of the developed world’s female population. And within American borders, women die at higher rates from suicide, homicide, and accidental firearm deaths in states where guns are more widely available. This is true even after controlling for factors such as urbanization, alcohol use, education, poverty, and divorce rates.

So train them! Marjorie Taylor Greene exclaims. But when is the working mother trapped in a house with an abuser going to have time to do intensive firearm training to use against someone she loves or is traumatically bonded to? The impracticality, the sheer lack of realistic application, it’s laughable.

And what is a woman to do if her abuser is a member of law enforcement? Is she supposed to get a weapon to defend herself against a police officer? Maybe Greene and the other well-meaning members of Congress who support this arm-the-women approach could start offering bulletproof vests free with every Glock bought by a woman afraid her husband might kill her.

Because ultimately if we are arguing over whether or not a woman afraid of her husband killing her should have a gun to protect her from him we are arguing about the wrong thing. We are making the problem her and her vulnerability instead of addressing his rage towards her.

We cannot hope to help individuals until we address the all-encompassing nature of misogyny in America. The problem is a crisis of masculinity that is being thrown under an umbrella of “mental illness” to minimize it and separate it from society instead of understanding it as an ingrained, systemic, and fundamental part of American culture. It should not be a surprise that many men have more hatred for women as women gain equality when men have been steeped in a culture where masculinity is often defined by the subjugation of women.

The difference between acknowledging this reality and the rhetorical maneuvering the NRA does to shift blame and perception is that the NRA doesn’t want anything to change.

Men are inflicting their “suffering” on women. You cannot say, as the NRA does and as many Republicans do, that America needs to address the deep societal issues causing men to erupt and then just ignore or deny misogyny. To take seriously the warning signs before a mass shooting would require taking seriously violence against women. And the majority of Republicans in Congress—and presumably many of the people they represent—are not ready to do that.

Hannah Yoest

Hannah Yoest is an editor and the art director of The Bulwark.