On Tuesday afternoon, a tragically familiar headline dominated news sites, cable shows, and Twitter feeds across the country. Yet another community had been shattered by an act of gun violence.
But the latest incident to capture the public’s attention — a shooting at a YouTube office outside San Francisco that left the suspect dead and several wounded — was not like the majority of violent rampages in in one key way: The person believed to be behind the attack was a woman.
The suspected shooter, identified by authorities as 39-year-old Nasim Najafi Aghdam, opened fire at an outside patio of the video streaming company’s headquarters just before 1 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, injuring three before turning the gun on herself. The motive is under investigation, though family members told reporters she had a grudge against the company over its policies.
What we know so far has put the spotlight on the fact that it is exceedingly rare for acts of mass or public violence, including shootings, to be committed by women.
Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor and national expert on gun violence, analyzed hundreds of mass shootings between 1966 and 2016 and found that 14 of 352 perpetrators — just 4 percent — were women.
Analyses published by the New York Police Department, Mother Jones and USA Today have produced similar findings. While incidents involving female attackers are so rare that some researchers say it’s difficult to identify the reasons why, Schildkraut says the data she’s reviewed on the issue does point to some trends.
“Women are more likely to commit intimate homicide, killing their spouses or killing their children and less likely to kill strangers than men to begin with,” says Schildkraut. “Then you factor in weapon selection: Men are more likely to use guns, women are more likely to use poison and suffocation, much more personal types of methodologies.”
Those women that do commit mass shootings are more likely to do so at a school or a workplace, Schildkraut found. “It has to do with access to victims and knowing their routines,” she explained.
Schildkraut has also tracked differences in how female shooters are viewed by the public and the media. Women who commit such crimes are often portrayed as “crazy or depressed,” when in reality, Schildkraut says data show they are typically not “drastically different in motivation than the other workplace shooters.”
Prominent cases involving women in recent years — including a 2015 shooting at a Southern California center for the developmentally disabled that left 14 dead and a 2014 attack at a tribal office that killed four — featured vastly different circumstances.
The Southern California rampage involved a husband-wife pair who were believed to be inspired by Islamic terrorists.
The 2014 attack was committed by a former tribal chair who family said “snapped” and killed several relatives over a move to evict her from her home.
It’s not just mass shootings being overwhelmingly committed by men.
Some experts point to these findings to argue that the gun violence epidemic in this country is, at its core, an issue of toxic masculinity deeply woven into society. Further exacerbating the issue, some experts say, is that men are less likely than women to seek help for mental health and substance abuse issues that can in some cases lead to violence.
“Not only do traditional notions of masculinity prevent men from seeking counseling or other forms of help they need, help which may prevent these mass shootings, but violence is also inculcated as a more masculine alternative than help seeking,” two leading researchers on the topic wrote in a book on shootings, according to USA Today.
Regardless of the gender – or the motive – of the suspect, Tuesday’s shooting was a grim reminder of the reality of gun violence in this country. More than 38,000 people died of gun-related deaths in 2016. Shootings that leave four or more wounded are near-daily occurrences.
Given those statistics, advocates for stricter gun laws say this latest attack is yet another sobering example of the need for reform.