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  • Writer's pictureRyon McDermott

New Research Summary: Why are men in the US responsible for most gun violence?

We sat down with Dr. Ronald F. Levant, Professor Emeritus at the University of Akron, to discuss his major contribution to the Psychology of Men and Masculinities on men and gun violence. The full title of the contribution is: Extending the Gender Role Strain Paradigm to Account for U. S. Males’ Gun Violence.

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What were the research questions you were answering with this contribution?

Most gun violence is committed by boys and men, yet most males do not commit acts of gun violence, indicating that some aspect of masculinity that varies among males might account for this incongruence. My research question was to theoretically explain what might predispose some males to commit gun violence, and to determine if the theory is supported by prior research findings. I posited that masculine gender role discrepancy strain, in combination with an acquired capability for gun violence, might account for why some boys and men commit acts of gun violence.

Masculine gender role discrepancy strain arises when males feel that they do not measure up to their own standards for masculinity or are induced to feel that way by having their masculinity threatened. As a sign of such strain, they might indicate that they find certain situations described on a questionnaire stressful. Two examples are being outperformed at work by a woman or telling someone that they feel hurt by what they said. A man’s masculinity can be threatened in an experiment by asking them to do a feminizing task, such as braiding the hair on a manikin and putting in pink ribbons, or by giving them bogus feedback that they scored like a typical woman on a psychological test.

Violence is not an easy topic to study. Conducting experimental research on violence has obvious ethical limits. In addition, longitudinal research on men judged to be at high risk for violence is prohibitively difficult. Facing such limits, psychologists of men and masculinities have developed alternative approaches. They have used either self-reported violence, both current and past, or proxy variables (e.g., aggression, misogyny, and hostility to minoritized ethnic/racial and sexual/gender identity groups) rated by scales in correlational studies, or they have used analogues to violence, such as punching a punching bag or administering shocks to an ostensible opponent in experimental studies.

What are some of the key findings?

Discrepancy strain was implicated as playing an important role in the perpetration of gun violence across a range of research methods, including correlational studies, experiments, and qualitative studies. Research of this type is typically siloed within a single discipline. However, I found evidence supporting the role of discrepancy strain in gun violence across four social science disciplines: psychology, sociology, criminology, and cultural anthropology. Furthermore, additional qualitative evidence linked discrepancy strain to the perpetrators of three categories of documented gun violence: school shooters, mass shooters, and murder suicides. These categories tend to overlap, as most school shootings were mass shooting and some were murder-suicides (e.g., Columbine).

I next examined the plausibility of the construct of acquired capability for gun violence. Acquired capability is a construct designed to explain serious suicide attempts, and I adapted the construct for gun violence. My rationale was that killing oneself or shooting another person are so far beyond the range of ordinary human experiences that it would seem that one must acquire the capability to do either. I theorized, first, that acquired capability for gun violence would develop over time through repeated exposure to guns, which would provide opportunities for desensitization of fear and anxiety and anticipatory planning of a gun violence encounter. Second, it would likely activate processes to reduce fear of death, because one’s own death is always possible in a gun encounter. Third, and central to this form of acquired capability, because there is a strong moral prohibition against killing another human being, acquired capability for gun violence would likely require strong justification for killing. In a war situation this is often accomplished by dehumanizing the enemy. Such acquired capability for gun violence could develop through gun ownership, gun carrying, and gun enthusiasm. Men who own and carry guns likely have fantasies about using their weapon, which could serve as a form of anticipatory planning as well as desensitization.

What are the key implications of your findings for research and public education?

Research on naturally occurring discrepancy strain, as well as experimental research on precarious manhood and similar programs that induce discrepancy strain, could examine links with gun carrying and intention to use firearms. This might be accomplished with a new scenario-based measure depicting varying degrees of threat and asking participants to indicate how likely they would be to carry a gun in each situation, and to use it if provoked. Second, coding protocols could be developed to systematically analyze case studies of gun violence for evidence of discrepancy strain and acquired capability for gun violence. A third direction would be to further develop the construct of acquired capability for gun violence, perhaps operationalizing it with a new scale. With regard to public education, I recommended that psychologists speak with parents, teachers, coaches, and other professionals who interact with boys to persuade them to carefully consider the messages that they are sending to boys.

What’s next: where do you see this line of research heading in the future?

These results are an advance over what we knew just 8 years ago, when a report on gun violence by the American Psychological Association came up with an answer that seems to beg the question: “The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior.” However, we still have quite a distance to travel in knowing how to reduce gun violence in the U. S.. The next step might be a colloquium with policy experts (e.g., in law enforcement, urban studies, legislation) to determine how to make this research actionable in a tangible way that might help curb gun violence.

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?

I have grown increasingly concerned about gun violence and wanted to use my expertise to help address this enormous problem, in which the U. S. today is awash in gun violence. Every day in the United States, approximately 30 persons die of homicides committed by someone using a gun. Mass shootings (defined as four victims not including the perpetrator) now occur on average more than once a day, most committed by boys and men. In fact, murders are committed by males in more than 90 % of the cases in which the sex of the perpetrator is known.


Ronald Levant is one of the key people responsible for creating the field of the psychology of men and masculinities. He was included in the Stanford University-Elsevier data base listing the top 2 % of scientists in the world and served as the President of the American Psychological Association.

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