Excerpted From: Hayley N. Lawrence, Toxic Masculinity and Gender-based Gun Violence in America: A Way Forward. 26 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 33 (Winter, 2023) (291 Footnotes) (Full Document)


HayleyLawrenceGun violence, and gun culture more broadly, are gendered phenomena in America. Empirically, the relationship between gun violence and gender is clear: men are more likely to own, use, kill with, and die by the gun. Gun ownership is disproportionately male: 62% of gun owners in the United States are men. Only 22% of women report that they own a gun compared to approximately 40% of men, which means that nearly twice as many men than women own guns. Male gun owners are also more likely than their female counterparts to own multiple guns.

Moreover, men are both the victims and perpetrators of gun violence at a shockingly disproportionate rate. As a general matter, men commit the vast majority of homicides in the United States, regardless of method used: in 2017, “men were responsible for 88.1[%] of all homicides” where the killer was known. Relatedly, guns are the most common method used in perpetrating homicides. In 2019, 10,258 of the 13,927 homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm, meaning that guns were used in nearly 74% of homicides that year. Of those homicides, the victims were male 78% of the time. But women face a grim reality, too: of all the women in the world killed by firearms, nearly 92% of them were women in the United States.

More specifically, 86% of suicides involve a male victim, and in suicide deaths, men use a firearm to commit suicide at nearly twice the rate that women do. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is also most often perpetrated by a male partner, even when comparing same-sex couples. And mass shootings are carried out almost exclusively by men. But why are gun ownership and gun violence predominantly male phenomena? What could explain these stark disparities?

Scholars have explored the statistical disparities of gun violence through various lenses: race, economic dislocation, cultural cognition, special interest group involvement, religion, and partisanship. Each of these perspectives adds something to our collective understanding. This Article proposes analyzing gun ownership and gun violence from an additional angle--that of toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity posits that, generally, gender constructs and social pressures drive men to suppress emotions, internalize trauma, act out to prove their manliness, demonstrate aggression, and subjugate women. As a result, men may lack peaceful conflict resolution skills or the means to process trauma and negative emotions. This may cause them to turn to violence--against others and against themselves. Guns, in turn, make this violence lethal.

Under traditional American conceptions of gender, men are socialized to see themselves as protectors, which may help to explain why men own guns at nearly twice the rate that women do, why more men publicly carry, and why male gun owners own more firearms than their female counterparts. And as noble and valiant as this “protector construct” may seem, this consciousness has a dark side: one that is borne out in gun violence data.

At bottom, this Article examines gender disparities in particular gun violence phenomena--suicide, intimate partner violence, and mass shootings--through the lens of toxic masculinity. At a macro level, toxic masculinity may explain why men perpetrate acts of gun violence at a disproportionate rate, and, as a corollary, help us understand what is to be done about the epidemic of violence. This Article suggests policy reforms to address suicide, IPV, and mass shootings in particular. And although much has been said in the popular press about toxic masculinity and gun violence, no legal academic article has confronted the issue head-on. This Article aims to fill that void.

Part I explores gun violence statistics and the relationship between gender and gun violence, focusing specifically on suicide, intimate partner violence, and mass shootings. Part II defines toxic masculinity, explores how toxic masculinity has manifested both in broader society and more specifically in American gun culture, and examines whether toxic masculinity can inform our understanding of gender disparities in the data, ultimately concluding that it can. And finally, Part III presents policy proposals to reduce suicide, intimate partner violence, and mass shootings, thereby improving public safety.

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The data is indisputable: gun violence is extraordinarily harmful to men of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and geographies, and, by extension, to women of all demographics, too. The concept of toxic masculinity helps us to understand how social norms influence male behavior and explain why we see such disparate statistics when it comes to gun violence. Furthermore, toxically masculine traits are embedded in American gun culture and manifest in what I term the “protector construct.” Taken together, toxic masculinity helps explain why particular gun violence phenomena--suicides, intimate partner violence, and mass shootings--are perpetrated disproportionately by men.

More broadly, the safety of all members of society--our friends, parents, partners, spouses, relatives, and children--demands comprehensive reform: an approach that acknowledges how deeply intertwined our notions of gender roles are with firearms, and how significantly those gender roles impact social behaviors. Our policy solutions must focus on the root causes of gun violence, in particular, oppressive and harmful gender norms, and their manifestations: suicide, intimate partner violence, and mass shootings. We must empower men to break free from those constructs and give them the tools to manage conflict and negative emotions. We must destigmatize and facilitate men's access to mental health services. Until those broader, social changes take hold, we must enact meaningful gun control reform.

Because mass shootings sit at the nexus between intimate partner violence and suicide, this suggests that gun control targeting IPV and suicide will also reduce the incidence of mass shootings. To target IPV, and more specifically to reduce intimate partner homicide, states should prohibit persons who are the subject of protective orders from possessing and purchasing firearms for at least the duration of the protective order. States should also require that at the time a person becomes subject to a domestic violence protective order they must surrender all firearms in their possession at the time the protective order takes effect. Finally, to reduce the incidence of suicide, all states should adopt Emergency Risk Protection Order laws to enable the state to intervene in a person's moment of crisis. These solutions are by no means the end-all-be-all: they are not perfect, and they will not solve these problems entirely. But, they are a start. Even if they only reduce suicide or intimate partner violence by ten percent, that percentage equals thousands of lives saved every single year. That is a path forward to a safer nation.


J.D./LL.M., Duke University School of Law, 2021; B.A., University of Virginia, 2016.