Tuesday afternoon, breaking news headlines featured an all-too-familiar scenario: a shooting. Again. A gunman had opened fire in a public place, just 10 days after hundreds of thousands took the streets as part of the March for Our Lives, declaring “never again.” While the news itself felt disquietingly routine, there was something different this time: it was a woman who had fired shots at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, CA, wounding three people before killing herself.
In the aftermath of each new shooting, attempts often follow to diagnose the “real” problem. The pattern is getting relatively well-worn: first comes the insistence that mental health is the culprit—or, as Donald Trump has said, a “savage sicko.” And then comes the backlash to that: experts who say blaming mental illness for gun violence is shaming and stigmatizing.
Here’s the thing: Research suggests that women are actually more likely to be diagnosed with some form of mental illness than men, and yet less than four percent of mass shootings are perpetrated by women, according to FBI data among other sources.
The magazine Mother Jones has compiled a detailed database of mass shootings in America from 1982 to 2018, and if you scroll down the “gender” column, it’s an unbroken sea of “Male” save for two lone “Female” entries, and one male/female, out of 98 shooting incidents. So how can we attempt to explain the statistical anomaly of the female active shooter?
“If the issue was mental illness then 50 percent of mass shootings would be done by women. If the issue was guns and the availability of guns, then 50 percent of mass shootings would be done by women,” says Jackson Katz, Ph.D., an educator and author who specializes in the intersection of gender and violence. “The most important factor is gender.”
It’s not like women don’t buy, use, or, in some cases, ardently support guns.“There’s a whole industry around women and guns—magazines, a line of purses that show how you can store your guns,” says Sheryl Kubiak, Ph.D., an expert in gender and mental health. But, she says, the emotional weight women give them is very different. In Dr. Kubiak’s opinion, “women think of [a gun] more as security and men think of it more as a symbol of power.”
Men represent 62 percent of gun owners but commit upwards of 96 percent of mass shootings. If we’re going to examine these shootings, we’re obliged to examine how masculinity—or what it means to be ‘masculine’ in our society—may play a role.
For exampleSherry Hamby, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Sewanee, the University of the South and editor of the academic journal Psychology of Violence, says she believes that ”women are not socialized to be aggressive in the same way that men are.”
But despite a growing number of articles delicately and indelicately pointing out that the lion’s share of mass-shooting perpetrators are male (and many are white), the idea that toxic masculinity itself may at least be a contributing factor in mass shootings is still something that doesn’t seem to be getting enough discussion. A recent op-ed on CNN, for example, called masculinity “an unspoken culprit.“
The YouTube attack, it should be said, wasn’t a mass shooting at all according to the conventionally-used definition which typically assumes three or more victims in a single incident. This was an “active shooter” situation: three people were injured, and only the shooter herself died. (After the massacre at Sandy Hook, Congress defined a “mass killing” event as one that claims three or more lives; Mother Jones also includes “sprees” in their data set, or shooting deaths don’t happen all in one place. I guess this kind of advanced taxonomy is the hallmark of a civilized society?) But however you slice the data, a woman shooter or attempted shooter is still a rarity. And to look at this issue with clear eyes requires addressing all the factors at play: yes guns, yes mental illness, and yes toxic masculinity.
Actor Michael Ian Black made this point clearly, and devastatingly, in a Twitter thread, followed by a New York Times op-ed, after the shooting in Parkland, FL. “Girls aren’t pulling the triggers,” he wrote. “It’s boys. It’s almost always boys.”
“America’s boys are broken,” he added. “And it’s killing us.”
Men are also more likely to be the shooter in a domestic violence situation, where the presence of a gun makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed. In an average month, 50 American women are shot to death by intimate partners who are most often men, according to statistics cited by EveryTown for Gun Safety. (In some cases, this involves the woman’s own gun.)
To look at this issue with clear eyes requires addressing all the factors at play: yes guns, yes mental illness, and yes toxic masculinity.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel attributes some of this violence to a phenomenon he calls “aggrieved entitlement”—which happens when men (particularly white ones), as a privileged group, feel they haven’t gotten that which they believe they are owed. Sex, for instance. Elliot Rodger, who shot and killed six people in Isla Vista, CA in 2014, left behind a manifesto in which he expressed fury that women wouldn’t have sex with him; Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015, reportedly said before opening fire: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” George Sodini opened fire on an aerobics class outside of Pittsburgh in 2009, killing three women, because he couldn’t get a date.
As a terrifying side note: Googling “George Sodini” gets automatically completed with “hero,” which will take you down a chilling rabbit hole of online “incel” communities—“involuntary celibates”—who are outraged that sex with women is not theirs for the taking. (By the way, I looked for this case in vain on the Mother Jones database, confused, until I realized it wasn’t there because it wasn’t “mass shooting” enough by their criteria—only three dead. Only.)
“Women don’t traditionally have the same sense of entitlement,” Dr. Katz says.
This obviously does not exclude all women from anger or violence. It’s just that, according to the experts we interviewed for this article, women and men can react to anger in very different ways. Granted, it’s important to step lightly around sexist stereotypes: of course all men don’t behave irrationally when angry, and all women don’t suffer in silence. It isn’t only one group doing all the shooting nor for one simple reason.
And yes, “there are a lot of people that get pissed off about things and they don’t get a gun and go shoot people,” says Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., who has spent 18 years overseeing mental health services in the New Jersey State Prison system and is currently the chief psychologist for University Correctional HealthCare of Rutgers University. In his line of work, he says he’s seen plenty of “very, very violent” women in prison.
There are, however, two factors that Abrams believes society should work on. “One is the legitimization of violence as the way to solve your problems, and the other is the muting of emotions,” he says. Though he sees toxic masculinity as an “umbrella societal issue,” he says untreated trauma can beget violence, and that’s something to which anyone is susceptible.
Maybe so. In Dr. Hamby’s view, “This [shooting] is just one of those exceptions that proves the rule.”