New data shows that 96% of spree killers are men
Men commit the majority of mass shootings in the United States. We know that. But the extent to which male shooters outnumber female perpetrators is nonetheless surprising. The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research group that tracks American mass shooting data as far back as 1966, finds that men are responsible for 98% of all mass shootings. Statistics released last week by the US Secret Service, which cover the more broadly defined ‘mass attack’, 25% of which don’t include a firearm, puts that number at 96%, which is still staggering.
There have been 55 mass shootings in the US so far this year. Of those, 38 have resulted in at least one fatality. This month, separate shooting sprees in the Californian cities of Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay killed 12 (including the perpetrator) and seven people, respectively. Both shooters were aged over 65, and therefore a deviation from the enduring cultural image, burnished by Columbine and its copycats, of the disaffected young man who turns to violent retribution.
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Yet these criminals are not nearly so much a departure from the norm as female killers. If mass attacks are an epidemic in the US, why do so few women commit them?
In an interview with NPR The Violence Project’s president, Jillian Peterson, a forensic psychologist and criminology professor at Hamline University, offered a theory: “Men are just generally more violent.” Others, like Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), have suggested that the disparity is because shootings are motivated by “toxic masculinity” or grievances against women. Other scholars attribute this to “an evolutionary drive that pushes males to be more aggressive than females”.
There are shades of truth in all of these explanations, but a more nuanced answer might lie in the divergent nature of mass shootings and female violence. It’s not that there aren’t violent women, even if there are fewer of them: there are (the number is growing, too). However, mass shootings don’t bear easy comparison to other types of violence. Yesterday’s serial killers are not necessarily today’s mass shooters. That’s only true in terms of the role they play in media narratives.
Mass shootings are their own type of aggression, one that is both external and, when compared to other homicides, impersonal. Female violence, on the other hand, is more personal. Another way to think about it? Women implode; men explode.
Mass shootings are explosive.
There’s a huge exploratory gap in the literature around female mass shooters, but we can draw conclusions from data available elsewhere. Studies on female violence demonstrate that women channel their anger in a private and calculated way, whereas men tend to lash out.
But the new data from the Secret Service also shows that 50% of mass shootings are sparked by personal, domestic, or workplace disputes — that is, personal grievances — so where’s the distinction? It’s more about the expression of aggression.
Female violence is individualised. It’s often reactive or in response to abuse from a sexual partner. It affects the family, relationships, and caregiving: Munchausen-by-proxy, familicide or infanticide, black widows, and angels of death (healthcare providers who kill their patients) are all common typologies. It almost always happens within the victim’s home.
But in an article for the Journal of Mass Violence Research, one of the few pieces that analyse female mass shooters, Jason R. Silva and Margaret Schmuhl found many more similarities than differences between male and female perpetrators. They also found that female shooters were distinct in general from female homicide offenders.
It’s not that women aren’t violent. They certainly can be. It’s just that men are more likely to exhibit this type of violence. It’s a small — but ultimately important — distinction, which goes some way to explaining, even if not conclusively, the scarcity of the female mass shooter.