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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Westneat: Bill goes after biggest guns

And assault weapons measure does so in more ways than one


When state lawmakers gathered recently to fight about guns, they ended up going off on a jag about something else entirely: Masculinity.

A roomful of legislators sitting around talking about the essence of men. What could go wrong?

Well, to make a short list: There was fake outrage, double entendres, unintentionally revealing jokes, the gaveling down of legislators and, most chronically, a serial missing of the point. So … probably about what we should expect when the menu is guns and testosterone.

“This caucus and myself take very big offense to how somehow a term called ‘hypermasculinity’ was built into this” bill, fumed state Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, at the start of a debate on a proposal to ban the sale of assault weapons.

“Now that I’ve read this … I will maybe have to become hypermasculine again,” said Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic. “Maybe some of us on this House floor will … if it means protect yourself or others by laying your life on the line. And usually in those moments, madam speaker, we hope for hypermasculinity.”

I don’t think that’s quite what hypermasculinity means, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

What happened is the state House in Olympia passed, for the first time, a ban on the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons. The proposal, House Bill 1240, doesn’t make people give up the assault weapons they already own; rather, it would block the sale or manufacturing of new ones.

The vote was years in the making, after lawmakers had met countless mass shootings with little but thoughts and prayers. With more guns than people in America, though, it would likely take years before measures like this could start to make a dent in the arsenal.

But what got everyone most riled up was the preamble of the bill.

“The legislature finds that the gun industry has specifically marketed these weapons as ‘tactical,’ ‘hyper masculine,’ and ‘military style’ in (a) manner that overtly appeals to troubled young men intent on becoming the next mass shooter,” one sentence of the bill reads.

Objected Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia: “This can be construed as dangerous rhetoric. … I worry about the message we’re sending now, using things like ‘uber-masculine’ when we talk about guns.”

The reason the bill reads that way is its prime sponsor, for seven years in a row, has been Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, whose district was the scene of the Mukilteo house party shooting in 2016. That shooting, like so many of them, was carried out by a teenaged young man who told police he regarded his freshly purchased Ruger rifle as “a symbol of power.”

The reality is 98 percent of mass shootings are done by men. And last summer, Congress issued a report on the way gun companies specifically exploit this masculine bond with big guns as a selling point for assault weapons.

There’s the infamous ad for the Bushmaster AR-15 that says: “Consider your man card reissued. Your status at the top of the testosterone food chain is now irrevocable.” It says “REissued,” meaning, buy a gun or you’ll stay a sissy.

That’s what the preamble of the bill was referring to: how gunmakers use exaggerated male gender tropes, also known as “hypermasculinity,” to bait young men into boosting their self-esteem through firearms. Which is exactly what happened, to tragic end, in the Mukilteo shooting.

It doesn’t mean all men are violent, or that women don’t use guns, too. It just means we’ve got a certain cultural problem in this country — one we’re not quite ready to acknowledge, at least not directly.

At one point a lawmaker was gaveled into silence for throwing an insult at state Attorney General Bob Ferguson (who has been pushing the ban for years). His seatmate, speaking next, mistakenly thought he too was about to be gaveled down.

“No, I wasn’t going to gavel you,” assured Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins.

The lawmaker lamented: “I’m not as hypermasculine as my colleague here.”

That was a joke, but a revealing one. We’re in an arms race, we men, a primal one. It’s a societal problem the marketers will happily tap for profit.

The assault weapons ban, if it becomes law (it hasn’t passed the state Senate yet), is an imperfect bill that may be more symbolic than effective at stemming mass shootings. Not the least of its soft spots is that it would be challenged in court.

But this debate showed it’s already having its desired effect. It’s going after our society’s biggest guns, in more ways than one.