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The Sad, Lonely Men Behind America's Mass Shootings

Is the U.S. finally ready to grapple with its toxic masculinity problem?
Crosses stand in a field on the edge of town to honor the 26 victims killed at the First Baptist Church on November 6th, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Crosses stand in a field on the edge of town to honor the 26 victims killed at the First Baptist Church on November 6th, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

In some ways, Devin Patrick Kelley, the man authorities say murdered 26 parishioners at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is unlike mass shooters of the past. Unlike Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 people in Las Vegas in what was the worst mass shooting in modern American history, Kelley acquired his firearms illegally; unlike Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and Dylann Roof, who murdered nine parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Kelley wasn't clearly driven by a twisted ideology.

But what appears to be the driving force behind the largest mass shooting in Texas history is rooted in an awful simplicity: Authorities say Devin Patrick Kelley wanted revenge on the lover who scorned him. According to law enforcement officials, he targeted the Sutherland Springs church because of "a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws," according to the Washington Post, whom Kelley had previously threatened in text messages and phone calls, and who reportedly worshipped at First Baptist. Among the dead in Sutherland Springs: the grandmother of his second wife.

Kelley's women troubles were said to be apparent from the beginning. Several former girlfriends, in interviews with NBC News, described a pattern of stalking and harassment that began before he graduated New Braunfels High School in 2009. After graduation, Kelley joined the Air Force but was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his first wife and child, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, receiving a year in military prison and a "bad conduct" discharge. "He assaulted his stepson severely enough that he fractured his skull, and he also assaulted his wife," retired Colonel Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor, told the New York Times. "He pled to intentionally doing it."

But Kelley's history doesn't make him exceptional. On the contrary, misogynist fury is quite predictable among mass shooters: Orlando shooter Omar Mateen both cheated on and abused his wife. Elliot Rodger, who opened fire on women standing outside a University of California–Santa Barbara sorority in 2014, published a video detailing his alienation from (and hatred for) women. And two years before he killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, Cho Seung-Huim was reported to police by two female undergraduates for stalking; he reportedly "left a rambling note raging against women," the Associated Press reported at the time.

Indeed, domestic violence and alarming strains of misogyny are powerful predictors of America's increasingly common mass shooting epidemic. Between 2009 and 2012, 40 percent of mass shootings started with a shooter targeting his girlfriend, wife, or ex-wife; by 2016, that number had swollen to 54 percent, according to gun-control advocacy group Every Town for Gun Safety. Of the 95 mass shootings between 1982 and 2017 in Mother Jones' open-source database, only three cases—that's just over 2 percent—included female perpetrators.

Is toxic masculinity really the root cause of our mass shooting epidemic? It would appear so, according to famed sociologist Michael Kimmel. After analyzing the uptick in school shooting incidents across the United States between 1982 and 2001, Kimmel identified a complicated tension between homophobia and the developing masculinity of adolescent American men as a core engine of mass casualty events, with feelings of weakness triggering for a show of strength. And the pent-up American adolescent isn't just a post-Columbine stereotype: He's a clinical category. "They came from middle-class families with no apparent financial difficulties," researchers observed in a review of school shooter pathologies published in the March of 2017 edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences and Criminal Investigation, noting that most perpetrators "had specific targets such as girls that rejected them, popular athletes or bullies."

Indeed, mass shootings are on the rise because the triggers of masculine rage—rejection, dislocation, perceived persecution—have only increased with the political and social liberalization of the last decade. Consider the populist fury of working-class white Americans in the age of President Donald Trump despite middle-class incomes rising to record levels: Many white men are seeing themselves as deprived of their traditional cultural power, a feeling that Kimmel labels "aggrieved entitlement," the perception of injustice despite relative economic and political stability.

"Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege," sociologists Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober wrote in 2015. "Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges. So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular)."

Kelley set out to prove himself extraordinary. His actions are anything but.