Asking the Right Questions in the Wake of Las Vegas

Randy Flood, co-founder and director with Charlie Donaldson of the Institute for the Prevention and Treatment of Mascupathy shares a column co-written with his associates—Al Heystek and Otha Brown—for the Fountain Hill Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What motivates mass shooters to do what they do? It’s a question America has been asking with increasing urgency in recent years, as mass shootings become both more common and more deadly. Sometimes there seems to be a more or less obvious explanation: the shooter was suffering from a mental illness, or was radicalized in some way by an extremist group, or was seeking revenge on a particular organization.

However, these explanations don’t seem a fit for Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old man who, last weekend, killed 59 people (58 strangers and himself) and wounded approximately 500 others at a country music festival in Las Vegas. From what we know, Paddock has no criminal record to speak of and no history of mental illness. He doesn’t appear to have struggled financially, or to have any radical political or religious leanings. There’s also no reason to suspect that he harbored a personal grudge against any of his victims. In fact, as a gambler, frequent visitor to Las Vegas, and past attendee at other country music concerts, Paddock appears to have many qualities in common with the people he killed.

What then are we to think? What on earth happened to Stephen Paddock that caused him to commit such a heartbreaking act of violence?

Struggling with Pain

As therapists who work primarily with men on men’s issues, two facts stand out to us: 1) Paddock was a man, and 2) Paddock had an obsession or fetish with guns and stockpiled them. So far, authorities have recovered 47 different guns owned by him, 33 purchased within the last 12 months. Though gun stockpiling has become more common among gun enthusiasts in recent years, it’s still unusual behavior, and 47 guns is an unusually high number.

These two facts, taken together, indicate to us that while Paddock may not have struggled with the law, with mental illness, or in the workplace, he likely struggled mightily to measure up to distorted internalized standards of masculinity. In our practices, we have found that men with rigid ideas of what constitutes masculine identity are much more likely to become obsessed with “manly” objects, hobbies, and behaviors as ways of coping with the fear of being seen as unmanly, shame of not measuring up, and loneliness born of an inability to connect authentically with others.

In fact, in our experience, almost all men struggle with painful feelings of fear, shame, and loneliness, and yet, are prevented from seeking relief by thoughts such as: “I should be stronger…I need to suck it up…I need to handle it…other men don’t struggle like this…I need to get a grip…I just need to man up, then I’d be fine.” Almost from birth, men are socialized to believe that any admission of struggle, shame, or pain indicates they have failed on a personal level, and so, many men opt to suffer in silence, even as their pain becomes more and more debilitating.

Worse, since men are also typically socialized to devalue the importance of emotional intelligence—an inner life—they instead scan their external environments for threats to their well-being, and conclude that other people are causing their pain, thus setting the stage for all kinds of violent acting-out. Candice Batton, Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha points out, “The majority of all homicide perpetrators are male—90-91%….Males may be more likely to be violent, especially lethally violent, because they are more likely than females to develop negative attributions of blame that are external in nature, that is: ‘The cause….of my problems is someone else or some force outside of me.’ And this translates into anger and hostility toward others…”

An Extreme Response

While we don’t know the exact nature of Paddock’s struggles, whatever pain or confusion or rage or wound or emotional hurt he had, he clearly externalized it, in a way that is almost uniquely male.

To be clear, though most men struggle with emotional wounds and distorted ideas of masculinity to some extent, very few will become mass shooters. And, although almost all mass shooters are male, the number of males who become mass shooters compared to the total male population is minuscule.

Men suffering from emotional pain are much more likely to suffer in silence, turn to drugs or alcohol, work themselves into their graves or out of intimacy, or commit suicide, and even those who externalize by causing harm to others are likely to do so in far less dramatic ways, committing acts of domestic violence or aggravated assault. As James Alan Fox recently pointed out in USA Today, “There are countless Americans who fail at work and in relationships, who have few friends and never smile, and who blame others for all their problems. Many may even fantasize about getting even with society. But acting on those thoughts is an extreme move that very few actually take.”

In fact, as therapists, we’ve observed the vast majority of men do not act with malice. They’re just “regular guys,” trying to meet impossible standards of manhood that we deem fundamentally unhealthy and dehumanizing. For some this leads to a pathology of masculinity we named mascupathy; others call it toxic masculinity. We believe men aren’t born to act out their pain onto others in violent ways, they are socialized to disconnect from their emotion and they lose a part of themselves—empathy and compassion—needed to govern behavior. Author and social activist, bell hooks reminds us that the first act of violence for men isn’t what they do to others, “instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.” This ultimately cultivates a malaise in males they don’t understand, won’t talk about, and are apt to pass on to others.

A New Resolve

In the aftermath of last weekend’s violence in Las Vegas, perhaps it’s time to question not just what motivates mass shooters to do what they do, but how it is that we, as a country, tolerate so much male misery and, what we can do about it.

Most of the men we have treated—those who find the courage to risk “unmanliness” and ask for help—show a remarkable capacity to open up their heart; not losing their masculinity, but instead developing their full humanity. Not only does this effectively reduce violence, these men develop a more balanced and healthy version of masculinity fit for the new millennium.


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