In early reports of a mass shooting that killed 14 in San Bernardino, California—the U.S.’s deadliest since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012—eyewitnesses described seeing what they took to be three male shooters fleeing the scene. The facts were more surprising: The shooters were a husband and wife who had dropped off their 6-month-old daughter with her grandmother just hours before the rampage, claiming they had to go to a doctor’s appointment.
Around 96 percent of mass shooters are male, according to the Washington Post, and roughly two-thirds are white, according to a database compiled by Mother Jones; the vast majority, in accordance with stereotypes, are single and have limited ties to family or society. The only female shooter on Mother Jones’ map, Jennifer Sanmarco, had “no family or friends,” as one acquaintance told NBC News.
Investigators are trying to uncover the motives that drove Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, who was American, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, who was Pakistani. On Thursday, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan told the New York Times that he has “not ruled out terrorism”—it’s worth pointing out that terrorists, too, are usually male—and on Friday, CNN reported that Malik had pledged “allegiance to ISIS” on Facebook, in a post written under a different name. We still don’t know much about Malik right now. But we do have an abundance of research on why she—as a woman shooter who was also a new mother—is such a statistical anomaly.*
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein dwelt on this point after a classified briefing with the FBI on Thursday. “You and I know that women—we wouldn’t leave a 6-month-old, our baby, to do this, to don tactical gear to go in and kill a bunch of people,” she told reporters on Capitol Hill after Democrats introduced a gun-control bill Thursday morning. “It’s not something a woman would easily do. So it’s going to be very interesting for me to see what her background was, what level of animus she had, because she had to have had a considerable level. … This was his grievance. … A woman is a woman. And her child has to be of maximum importance to her.”
Eric Madfis, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma, says he doesn’t know of any cases where a husband-and-wife duo have perpetrated a mass shooting, although there are recorded cases of husband-and-wife teams who were serial killers or domestic terrorists. Most shooters are “single, separated or divorced,” according to a sweeping analysis of mass shooters that the New York Times published this October; Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado on the day after Thanksgiving, was twice-divorced and estranged from his children.
Though the average age for mass shooters is 35, many fall in the FBI’s peak window for violent crime, which is 16–24. This is a moment when people “are less likely to have significant attachments in their life that deter them from criminal violence,” as Pete Simi, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska, has told Vice. “Those of us who are not committing crimes on a regular basis, [it’s] largely because there are constraints in our lives—we have things to lose.” Such a description seemingly wouldn’t apply to the parents of a baby.
According to reports, on the day of the shooting, Farook left an office holiday party “in anger after a dispute of some sort,” and then returned with Malik, heavily armed. Officials have also found “thousands of rounds of ammunition in their home as well as 12 pipe bombs,” and are now saying that the attack “was clearly premeditated, and does not fit the mold for typical workplace violence incidents,” according to the New York Times. One official told the paper, “You don’t take your wife to a workplace shooting, and especially not as prepared as they were.” Others, however, said that some signs pointed away from terrorism.
Mass shooters are often driven by the sense that they’ve been unjustly wronged, or given less than their due by the world. As Joni E. Johnston has written at Psychology Today, the most lethal mass shooters are often of the “pseudocommando” variety, exemplified by a person who
comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons, typically has no escape planned, and is pursing a highly personal and well-thought-out agenda of “payback.” … According to research, these revenge mass murderers tend to have been bullied or socially excluded as children. As adults, they tend to be highly sensitive to any slight or rejection and to spend time dwelling on past humiliations. Given the right circumstances, these obsessive thoughts turn into violent revenge fantasies to protect a fragile—sometimes overly inflated—ego.
That motivation could be at work here, but it’s rarely associated with violence perpetrated by women. We don’t entirely know why men are so much more likely than women to violently avenge a perceived loss of status. Theories run the gamut from the effects of testosterone to the influences of violent video games. In part, argues Lin Huff-Corzine of the University of Central Florida, women are simply less comfortable with guns. But experts also posit that our social construct of masculinity has something to do with the mass murderer profile. Men are conditioned to “exert social dominance, achieve a high social status, command respect, and demonstrate authority,” as Christopher A.D. Charles and Deniese Kennedy-Kollar have written in the Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice. This idea of what manhood is still exerts power over our collective imagination, even as it has less and less hold on the structure and function of our society.
Candice Batton, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, has spoken to NPR about how men are also more likely to transmute a sense of failure or shame into a sense of righteous anger toward some external group. Whereas women “are more likely to develop negative attributions of blame that are internal in nature, that is: ‘The cause of my problems is some failing of my own: I didn’t try hard enough, I’m not good enough,’ ” she says, men “are more likely than females to develop negative attributions of blame that are external in nature, that is: ‘The cause … of my problems is someone else or some force outside of me’. And this translates into anger and hostility toward others.”
Taken together, these arguments help explain the twisted mentality that drove Elliot Rodger to kill six people in revenge against “all you girls who rejected me,” or the way that poverty and high levels of male unemployment stoke the sick doctrine of white supremacy that Dylann Roof used to justify his shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
The feelings of entitlement behind so many mass shootings may explain why shooters skew not just male but white male. According to the findings of a 2013 study at the University of Washington: “Among many mass killers, the triple privileges of white heterosexual masculinity which make subsequent life course losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful ultimately buckle under the failures of downward mobility and result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity.” As Madfis explains, “If we’re talking about mass murderers, they often have gone through life with a series of losses—they’ve failed in lots of respects, haven’t gotten jobs they wanted, been passed over for promotion, these kinds of things. Then something bad happens, they get fired, there’s kind of an acute event” that triggers the shooting.
This makes it all the more surprising that Farook and Malik were just two years married, new parents, and, at least in the perception of Farook’s co-worker, “living the American dream.” This tragedy doesn’t fit inside any of the frameworks available to us for understanding mass shootings. And as more details emerge, they may suggest a new, horrifying schema of violent crime.
*Update, Dec. 4, 2015: This article has been updated to include reports that Malik pledged “allegiance to ISIS” in a Facebook post.