There’s something about boyhood and guns. Whether it’s a pointed finger or a toy pistol, boys start pretending to shoot people as soon as they pick up the concept from cartoons, video games, or other boys.

It brings a feeling of power, and boys like that.

The problem is that boyhood these days often extends well into the age at which boys are legally allowed to purchase real guns, including assault weapons.

And boys eventually turn into men, who often remain insecure boys at heart.

According to statistics cited by The Washington Post on July 3 – before several other mass shootings – of the 196 mass shooters who have killed four or more people in a public place since 1966, only five of them were women. That means 98% of mass shootings are done by men, and more than 40% of the shooters were between 18 and 29. Another third were between 33 and 45.

A tree with colored ribbons hanging from the branches.

Ribbons on the Cartledges’ cherry tree mark each death due to mass shootings in 2022 — 174 as of July 18. (Photo: Susan Cartledge)

But mass shootings are only a small fraction of the number of people who die by gun violence. As of July 17, according to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 24,000 people in the U.S. had already died from bullets in 2022. More than half of them were by suicide.

In 2017, according to a forthcoming article in the Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, men were responsible for more than 88% of homicides where the killer was known.

We don’t just have a gun problem; we have a man problem.

Which starts with a boy problem.

Which leads me to recall when I was a boy. I had a “Lone Ranger” pistol, but my brothers and I mostly played army games, stalking the woods, diving behind cover, aiming our pretend rifles at pretend enemies.

I grew up in a rural area where hunting was a big thing and it started early. I was the youngest in my class and generally on the shy side, but when my fourth and fifth grade classmates started bragging about their hunting kills, I didn’t want to be left out.

My parents wouldn’t let me have a shotgun, but I got a Daisy Model 25 pump BB gun somewhere around age 12, and I was a terror to neighborhood sparrows, the only birds I was officially allowed to shoot.

When my peers bragged about the number of quail they had killed, I ventured that I had killed a few birds, too. I suspect they were lying as much as I was.

I got the shotgun I wanted for Christmas at age 14, an inexpensive bolt-action .410 suitable for squirrel hunting. I enjoyed the early morning solitude of the woods more than the hunting itself, but I brought home a few squirrels, which were dutifully fried.

I stopped hunting on the day I managed to knock a squirrel out of a tree without killing it. As I bashed its head against a tree to finish the job, it squealed so pitifully that my shotgun was relegated to snake duty in the rare cases that a big copperhead showed up.

In my early 20s, I inherited a silver 38 Special revolver from a relative who had carried it while servicing several pool tables he kept in various juke joints around the county.

I sheepishly confess to having been proud of it. I practiced shooting a few times, and even carried it in the pocket of the car for a while. The gun brought with it the thrill of power and the fantasy of being in greater control. Urgh! Urgh!

Here’s the thing: I had grown up in a stable family, had a stellar education, and was married. As a young pastor, I was in a leadership position that carried its own measure of power, and I was often affirmed.

I had no need of an emotional or psychological crutch to bolster my masculinity, and yet I felt the sinister pull that firearms exert before giving the pistol to another relative who wanted it more than I did.

So, I try to imagine being a boy who comes from a toxic home situation. A boy who is bullied at school. A boy who doesn’t fit in, who can’t get a date, who is so caught up in his adolescent angst that schoolwork is an annoyance that’s easily ignored.

I imagine a boy who is angry at the world but who lacks the maturity to deal with his emotions, a boy with no trusted mentor to help guide him, a boy who retreats into himself and the fantasy worlds of social media and first-person shooter video games.

Oh, wouldn’t he love the potent rush of a gun in his hand? And oh, isn’t he the very last person who needs one?

But in many states, he can legally purchase assault rifles and cases of ammunition three full years before he can buy a beer at the corner store.

Even where the age limit is higher, it’s not difficult to persuade someone older to buy the guns for him, or to access unsecured guns belonging to his parents.

Neuroscience tells us that our prefrontal cortex – which plays a large role in emotional maturity – isn’t fully wired up before age 25, and that is certainly part of the problem, but not the only one. Many men who are well past 25 still lean on the emotional flush that comes with guns, a sense of power to fight the fears of insecurity or inadequacy.

I am not suggesting that adults who hunt should not own appropriate weapons for that purpose – wildlife management is important, and hunting plays a role in that. For many people, wild game is an important source of nutrition.

But no one outside of the armed forces, law enforcement, and government security services has a legitimate need for guns whose only purpose is shooting people. We don’t need self-styled militia groups despite the Second Amendment’s outdated allowance for them. Yet, guns outnumber people in the U.S. by a wide margin, including 20 million AR-15 assault weapons in private hands, and the cult of weapon worship continues to grow.

There is no “God-given right to own guns,” as I have heard proponents claim. But for many people guns have become gods in themselves – objects of veneration that provide a sense of security or control in an uncertain world.

I don’t claim to have solutions – certainly none that the current Congress would approve. Commonsense gun laws that prohibit private ownership of assault weapons would be a good start. Gun buy-back programs could be helpful.

But the main thing, the thing I wish so badly we could do, is find a way to help the boys, both the stable ones and the troubled ones, to grow into emotionally healthy men who don’t need a gun to feel confident or competent, men who value themselves as people of worth and are thus capable of valuing others, too.

That’s where it gets personal. Maybe there’s a reason the word men-tor is spelled the way it is. We could use a lot more of them.

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