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Is it the guns or the insecure little boys who wield them?

Anyone who has had kids has witnessed the moment. A toddler of about 3 or 4 will pick up a stick and, for the first time, point it at someone or something and say bang. It’s always boys. It’s never girls. I saw it hit my daughters’ play groups during pre-K. In fact, I remember the specific boy who did it first and the other boys who immediately imitated him until a little make-believe Montessori gun battle was raging. Little primates passing along the virus of domination.

Being a movie critic, I thought of Stanley Kubrick and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the scene of the first ape to pick up a bone and turn it into a weapon. And of all the prehistoric creatures who followed, even up to when they called themselves men. There’s an old song by the ’80s group XTC called “The Smartest Monkeys” that often springs to my mind when I read of the latest massacre. Of the 22 dead in El Paso and the nine in Dayton. That’s all we are: The apes who got bigger brains and never fully figured out what to do with them. Would the carnage be happening if we had?

Here’s news to no one: We are in a crisis of male insecurity in this country, specifically white male insecurity. The insecurity is prompted by, among other things, the demands of women and minorities for an equal share of the pie, the megaphone of the Internet that has allowed those groups a louder voice, and their increasing success at the local and national ballot box. Or, rather, the insecurity is prompted by fear of these developments — the belief that if other kinds of people achieve a measure of political power, there’ll be less for the men who always had it.

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To which the toddler brain says bang bang, but with real bullets and full magazines.

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I was one of those little boys once, I’m sure of it. I grew up. Part of my growing up was learning to shoot a rifle and shoot it well, and to understand what it should and should never be pointed at. I believe in responsible gun ownership, and I believe that by far the majority of Americans do, too. But even part of that majority loses its head when common-sense gun reform is discussed, because we have this strange idea in America, inflamed by the National Rifle Association and other vested entities, that guns are not only intimately entwined with liberty — with one’s personal and political freedom — but with one’s independence and potency as a male. There’s this notion that taking away the right to own a certain type of firearm will lead to a national unmanning.

Which, honestly, does not sound like a bad idea right about now. I, for one, am ready to hand the entire mess that is our dysfunctional society over to the women. But for a certain individual out on the fringes, a man who feels threatened and whose fear has been stoked, reaching for the boom-boom stick may be like reaching for the security blanket.

The issue is certainly not video games, for pity’s sakes. Republican politicians and the bloviators on Fox News will tell you that “Call of Duty” and “Fortnite” are behind the carnage in El Paso and Dayton, the Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Poway synagogue in California. Do they understand how many millions of people play video games and don’t become mass murderers? That virtually everyone under 35 knows his or her way around a gaming console? A recent Oxford study found no correlation whatsoever between violent video game use and aggressive behavior in adolescents. One of the Sandy Hook killer’s favorite games was “Dance Dance Revolution.” Maybe we should ban that.

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Want to blame mental illness? Every human society on earth has its share. No other country has even close to the number of mass shootings as the United States. Nor are social media or violence in movies and on TV the convenient villains some might hope for. The former empowers and educates as much as it divides and foments; the latter is more a symptom of the male need for bang bang than a cause.

Honestly, it’s not even the guns. OK, it’s mostly the guns. But when you burrow down to the diseased heart of it all, what is shared by the worst mass killings in America — the ones with the highest body counts, the biggest amount of ordnance, and the most random victims — is that they are carried out by aggrieved white men who feel the country and the world slipping from their control. Which it is, very slowly but very surely, and probably about time, too.

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These men want their bang bang back — the feeling of indominability they feel they were promised and believed their kind once had. They see their power waning, their privilege finally in question, and it terrifies them. So they lash out, often at co-workers or spouses and girlfriends. And sometimes they pick up the biggest stick they can find and go after the boogeyman of them. Which, when all the shooting’s over and the bullets have been spent, always turns out to be men, women, children;
fathers, mothers, grandparents. Republicans and Democrats. New Americans and old, not them, in other words. Just us.


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.