By David Michael Newstead.
Cliff Leek is a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University studying the phenomenon of mass shootings. Below we discuss his research and issues surrounding gun violence in America.
David Newstead: First, why did you start studying mass shooters? What about the subject stood out to you?
Cliff Leek: Well, mass shootings have obviously been in the news more and more frequently in recent years and as a scholar of men and masculinity the question that kept coming to mind after each shooting was “what might masculinity have to do with this?” Lots of conversations with Michael Kimmel and also reading the work of folks like Jackson Katz led to the concept of “aggrieved entitlement“, which you will see in writing by Michael and I on the topic. It really stood out to us that while nearly every single one of these mass shooting was perpetrated by men there was almost never any conversation about why that might be… and that is a question that we wanted to grapple with.
David Newstead: Mass shooters are almost exclusively white males, true or false?
Cliff Leek: To be honest, it really depends on what data set you use and how “mass shooter” is defined. If you define mass shooters as someone shooting strangers, then absolutely. A lot of folks who are critical of the work that Michael and I have put out point to gang violence and say that we are clearly wrong, but we consider that a different kind of violence. Still just as important to understand and examine, but it is a different phenomenon.
David Newstead: So, the critical difference might be that gang violence is between people who know each other? Rather than someone randomly shooting up a theater or a mall?
Cliff Leek: Yes, absolutely.
David Newstead: So, as you were studying this phenomenon, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
Cliff Leek: Well, I’ll give you two things. First, I was surprised just how many of these shootings there are. I knew there were a lot, but once you dig into the data you see that there are so many more that you never hear about or only hear about very briefly on the news and then quickly forget. We aren’t talking about a small handful of these incidences a year. I mean, this is happening far more than 3-5 times a year. This kind of violence is now happening dozens of times a year.
Second, I was surprised at our willingness as a society to ignore the trends in perpetration of this kind of violence and simply write this violence off as an issue of mental illness – over and over again.
David Newstead: What’s a ballpark estimate for the number of these incidents each year?
Cliff Leek: Well, again, that depends on how you define the parameters. How many people does a person have to shoot or kill for it to be considered a mass shooting? One of the data sets that we really appreciated was from Mother Jones and they report 71 of these shootings since 1982. But the Stanford Geospatial Data Center reports 42 so far in 2015 alone.
David Newstead: Quite a discrepancy. So, what’s behind these trends then? Shootings have gotten so common. They set off predictable news coverage, a predictable gun control debate, and then mental health discussions.
Cliff Leek: We don’t have a perfect answer to that question. Every time this kind of violence hits the news we have the usual talk of “too many guns,” “not enough mental health services,” etc. And we don’t claim that those aren’t part of the problem. I personally believe that they are, but they aren’t the whole problem.
The idea that Michael and I put forward, aggrieved entitlement, is basically that men, and white men in particular, have benefited from a tremendous amount of privilege and advantage throughout U.S. history and that the current violence is the result of the perception that that privilege is slipping away. Many white men in this country see the gradual leveling of the playing field as attacks on the lifestyle they were promised – a lifestyle of power and privilege. We argue that many white men are reacting to that perceived loss by lashing out violently.
David Newstead: Is there a solution to that?
Cliff Leek: I would argue that the best way to a solution that we have is education. Men wouldn’t feel this sense of loss if we didn’t acculturate them into feeling that the world is meant to serve them in the first place.
David Newstead: Would you say your research has been unpopular in certain circles? Meaning that some people want to perpetuate an idea of gun violence that’s drastically different.
Cliff Leek: I would say so, yes. I was shocked at the strong backlash that it received from folks who don’t want to even consider the possibility that this violence might have something to do with masculinity – and might have something to do with whiteness. When Michael and I were published in the New York Daily News we both very promptly received emails and messages on social media from folks with the Confederate flag and/or Swastikas on their profiles calling us all kinds of awful things. I wasn’t particularly surprised at the time that that element of the U.S. still existed, but I was surprised at how vocal and out in the open it was.
David Newstead: Isn’t that convoluted though? Reactionary men writing angry emails to say how wrong you are about some men being angry reactionaries.
Cliff Leek: Hahaha yes. There is a lot of irony there.
David Newstead: I’m trying to think of a good closing question, but I feel like this issue is still very open ended and with us for a while. Sadly.
Cliff Leek: I totally understand that feeling. We can only hope that we can eventually start to take it seriously. I am in the beginning stages right now of working with a team of researchers to examine the backlash against progressive gains in race, class, and gender. You might be familiar with Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash, where she talks about the regressive efforts to undermine feminism in the 1990s. We are hoping to take a similar look to see if we are experiencing a sort of inter-sectional backlash moment right now.
David Newstead: I look forward to hearing the findings. It’s definitely timely research.