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America Raises Killers

America Raises Killers


18 year-old Payton Gendron, armed with an assault rifle and rabid with racial hatred, killed 10 innocent souls in a Buffalo, NY grocery store. 

We all know the story.  Local, state and federal officials express outrage, cite their community’s resilience and pledge to see that this never happens again.  But it will.  The Gun Violence Archive lists more than 200 mass shootings (defined as four or more wounded or killed) in this year alone.  It’s only May.   98% of the shooters are male.

The never-ending series of mass shootings in America generates more heat than light.  There are always suggestions that more guns in the hands of good guys will save us.  Nothing like more guys with guns to solve America’s problem with violence! It’s like prescribing bacon to treat heart failure. And we Americans assuredly have heart failure when it comes to gun violence.

But in Buffalo, there was a good guy with a gun  He’s dead too, having been unable to penetrate Gendron’s body armor.

I won’t bother arguing for common sense gun control. Each time I’ve written about gun control the only visible result is more action for NRA trolls.  But, to be fair, most gun owners and Second Amendment zealots don’t murder their friends and neighbors. They just make it possible for others to murder our neighbors, friends, and children. It’s called being an accessory to a crime, although the NRA considers gun ownership “patriotism.”  Patriotism is the world’s number one killer.

Opponents of gun control have a counter-argument for every argument. “Bad guys don’t follow the rules.” “Most shooters got their guns legally.” “It’s a mental health problem, not a gun problem.” “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

So nothing changes.

But here’s one thing we know about shooters that is seldom discussed; they don’t seem to like school. Even the young men who shoot up grocery stores, movie theaters, Army bases, and workplaces don’t seem to like school. Peyton Gendron did not like school.  Even when classes restarted last year, he stayed home and did school online.  So perhaps schools are where we really can do something.

Most mass school shooters — I won’t name them — have been young men. They are nearly invariably described as “loners,” isolated and sad. They live alone or, often, with their mothers, retreating into fantasy, watching the world with festering resentment and confusion. Their sexual energy is consumed by pornography. Their social lives are digital, playing out in violent pockets where the marginalized and alienated find perverse community. 

In recent years these sad boys have been drawn in 4chan and racist sites including those that advance Great Replacement Theory, a long festering malignancy that tells confused boys that Blacks and immigrants are going to take away whatever shred of worth they derive from being – at least – white.

They are frequently described as having gone unnoticed. And that is precisely the case. These sad boys, and the men they become, have been unnoticed.

They weren’t born this way, they were made this way.  From the earliest years, in and out of school, being different is so hard. The currency of success and acceptance for American boys is a peculiar type of faux-masculinity. As the meritocracy of childhood plays out, winners gain confidence and losers drift to the shadows. We all know the traits that work: The ability to pick up on social cues; athletic skill; an odd kind of aloofness; clever aggressive behavior delivered with laser efficiency to gain social capital. Some boys don’t know how to (or don’t want to) do these things and find community in a club, the orchestra, band or theater and survive just fine.

But a few boys slip through the cracks and disappear. Then, when they reappear in armed fury, we are shocked.

This uniquely American disorder is too often blamed on mental illness. These associations are largely inaccurate, but the mythical link to autism is particularly absurd, unsupportable, and cruel. I’ve worked with profoundly psychotic patients who were still able to comprehend and exhibit love despite the twisted synapses of their illness.

School is the place where their pain is felt most acutely. Home, however dysfunctional, is at least private. A boy alone in a room with a computer is able to imagine, often in deadly play, a world where he belongs, where he has power, where he can win — or at least have a fighting chance. But school offers limited shelter. All of the things that such a boy longs for and can’t have are just out of reach.

This experience is deeply, often permanently, wounding.

Of course a loving and supportive family can partially sooth the wounds, but too often the growing despair is nearly invisible. Adolescence is not a time for boys (or girls) to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to family members, even in the best of cases. Even we lucky parents, whose children navigated childhood with success, are often unaware of the inevitable stresses and unhappiness of adolescence.

School is the place where the pain grows like a silent cancer that we just don’t notice often or early enough. It seems that each one of these sad young men was once a lonely boy, perhaps eating alone in the cafeteria, perhaps not eating at all because of the humiliation a social environment presents. Many of these boys have been bullied and shamed.

Our schools are too big, too impersonal and too competitive. I know – I’ve watched – that some adults are actively or passively complicit in the wounding of boys: chuckling as they are picked last or not picked at all; favoring the assertive and appealing boys and girls; ignoring, day after painful day, the silent despair of the boy in the back of the class who has no friends and feigns disinterest to cover up constant fear.

The next generation of potential mass shooters is in our schools today. We can notice them, love them, penetrate their isolation, comfort them, and give them at least one point of genuine, unconditional affection.

We should address gun violence with strict gun control and better funding for mental health services. But those measures, even if we could muster the political will, are only going to partially shut the door on mass violence after too many young men have passed through.

Teachers, counselors and school leaders can do something now. Make a commitment to love the boys who are in the shadows. Find the boys who try not to be found. Notice the children sitting alone and make sure they never sit alone again. Do whatever it takes to love the boys who are doing everything they can to make themselves unlovable.

I don’t believe in God, but I believe in love. Perhaps they’re the same thing. I don’t believe that any human who is deeply loved and learns to love deeply will erupt in homicidal rage.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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