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Female Mass Killers Are Incredibly Rare: Why?

Whenever there’s a mass killing, there’s a 98% chance that the perpetrator is male.

| 3 min read

Whenever there’s a mass killing, there’s a 98% chance that the perpetrator is male.

The mass shooting that took the lives of 14 people and injured 22 more on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California is still fresh in our minds and heavy in our hearts. Mass shootings are a dire problem in the United States, with reports that there have been more days with mass shootings than without in the past year.

However, the gruesome attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino sticks out like a sore thumb. Why? Because one of the shooters was female.

It’s hard to pin down uniform certainties when it comes to mass killers — race, age, socioeconomic status, and motive tend to fluctuate. But the closest thing to certain that behavioral experts can pin to a mass killer is that the murderer will almost always be a man.

SEE ALSO: Study Finds Violent Media Promotes Cheating, Lying

It’s been known that women are less violent than men, but mass killings, more than all other types of violence, are an overwhelmingly male phenomenon. In fact, TIME reports that when a mass shooting or massacre occurs, there is a 98 percent chance the killer will be male.

When it comes to homicide, women only commit about 10 to 13 percent of homicides in the United States, according to Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor and author of "The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.”

Plus, when women do commit homicide, guns are rarely their weapon of choice. Lankford told Live Science that women only account for about 8 percent of homicides by gun — instead, women tend to use poison or fire. Female perpetrators are linked to 40 percent of homicide poisonings and 20 percent of the deaths by fire.

Interestingly, female mass killers are "so rare that it just hasn't been studied," James Garbarino, a psychologist at Loyola University Chicago who has researched human development and violence, told Live Science. "There aren't enough cases.”

The reasons behind this gender discrepancy are plentiful, stemming from evolution, biology, and culture.

The evolutionary reason is pretty straightforward — over hundreds of thousands of years of development, males have typically been rewarded for aggression. It can symbolize power over other males, attract females, and eliminate outside threats. Violence can signify status, and all of these themes are perpetuated in our popular culture. In movies, the superhero or strongest guy always gets the girl and comes out on top.

Katherine Newman, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings,” says that school shootings in particular have a lot to do with status. Again, a particularly male phenomenon, Newman speculates that boys and young men experience disappointment and humiliation in the face of rejection from certain social groups. Instead of settling for being a loser or an outcast, they respond with the cultural script that equates violence and masculinity.

Men may also be more biologically wired to commit criminal acts. Studies have shown that variations in a gene called MAOA, in combination with developmental stressors like physical abuse of drug use, can raise a male’s risk of becoming a criminal. Plus, men are more likely to base moral decisions on abstract principles instead of empathy, according to Garbarino.

Cultural factors certainly play a role in encouraging aggression in men, like violent sports and video games. Lankford says that sexual frustrations are also an overlying theme in many mass killers. Take Elliott Rodger, for instance — the 22-year-old who killed six people and wounded 13 others in a shooting and stabbing spree at Santa Barbara City College. In a bone-chilling video confession, he blames the women he kills for rejecting him, saying they deserve the “utter annihilation” that will be coming their way.

"By contrast, I'm not aware of any female attackers, even though we have a small sample, I don't know that any of them complained about not being able to have sex," Lankford said.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of males don’t go on to become mass killers. However, recent studies have pointed to the fact that mass shootings are contagious, and a different one claims the “American Dream” may also be to blame for the epidemic.

For most things in the science world, you hope for as much data to produce the most accurate results as possible. But when it comes to female mass shooters, it’s definitely a wonderful thing that the phenomenon is so rare that scientists haven’t been able to truly study it. Ladies, let’s keep it that way.

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