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Why are most mass shootings perpetrated by men?


Source: Matthais Wewering

Of all the countries in the western world, America, is most plagued with Mass Shootings. The global consensus is that lax gun laws make it easy for radicalised, mentally unwell, or simply motivated individuals to enact atrocities. But why are most of these crimes committed by men? Women can just as easily obtain weapons. Below, you explore what social science has to say about these questions.

I would dissect your question into at least two parts:

• Firstly, in general, male individuals tend to commit more crime than female individuals, among which violent crimes: therefore, part of the answer is why males are more involved in crime?

• Secondly, the term mass shootings is used to define several kinds of scenario which may not be entirely identical: gang violence, school shootings, terrorism, etc.

Concerning the first, I gave an extensive overview of different explanations about the gender gap in crime. It might be alluring to think that the difference is innate, however there are several reasons to challenge the idea that male individuals are simply naturally more aggressive and violent than their female counterparts.

As background, I would highlight that:

• the gender gap appears to be reducing over time, with male trends declining towards female trends instead of the opposite or the two meeting at a halfway point.

• when research finds differences between the sexes in terms of personality traits (and abilities) these tend to be small and overlapping, and limited to a few domains, and it is not possible to rule out the effect of culture.

• there are several studies which suggest that it is not possible to categorize different brain structures as distinctly male or female, if there are differences the question remains about whether these differences account for differences in function, and then there is the issue of neuroplasticity which does not allow to rule out the impact of the environment in shaping the development of the brain and the outcomes of this development.

• Violent crime has been declining over the centuries. Together with other considerations about, for example, whether there are strong genetic explanations for violent behavior, there is reason to argue against the notion that humans are naturally violent. At least, the evolution of our societies can greatly reduce violent behavior over time.

• There is evidence that the gender gap is reducing, and societal changes can account for this decline which appears to be driven mainly by men ‘behaving more as’ women. Other explanations include evolutions in gender equality, family structure, public safety, the economy, social mores (see domestic violence), etc.

• There is research that shows both male and female children show aggression, but in different manners (e.g. direct vs indirect). Furthermore, research with young children suggests that rather than humans learning to become violent or antisocial, children begin “antisocial” and learn to become social through parenting, schooling, etc. Boys and girls are treated and raised differently, which may explain the differences in future behavior.

• Opportunity is important. Historically at least, male individuals tend to be more exposed to risk, both of offending and victimization, such that they are more likely to be outside at late hours and with less worries (e.g. because men individuals do not share the same fear of crime as women). Conversely, you cannot get into a barfight at home.

• Popularly, testosterone is an aggression hormone which would explain males being more violent. It is more complicated than that, research has since gone past simple relationships between hormones and behavior, or testosterone promoting a single kind of behavior (i.e. aggression): it depends on the context and the goals to be achieved.

• It is important to think about violent behavior as the outcome of many other background factors. For example, depending on the culture, men drink more than women, and in certain cultures alcohol provides a justification for bad behavior.

• I do not get much into evolutionary explanations about violence at the end because my reply was already long, and I had spent a lot of time on it, but you can read my discussion here about what certain researchers have to say about violence and adaptation.

OK, what is specific about mass shooters?

• First of all, the obvious: men are likelier to own firearms than women.

• Second, it is hard to define profiles. If we are talking about school shooters and those who attack venues such as malls and nightclubs to attempt to kill as many people as possible, there is the problem that these individuals most often than not are killed or kill themselves during the event (and dead people tell no tales). Furthermore, as much as these events are sensational and widely debated in the public forum, they remain relatively rare events which makes it hard to make strong conclusions, and most of all, to generalize.

• Over a decade ago, the Secret Service published a report about their attempt to understand school shootings and concluded that: “There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence“. Likewise, the FBI studied 63 active shooters (“an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area“) between 2000 and 2013 and concluded that “The 63 active shooters examined in this study did not appear to be uniform in any way such that they could be readily identified prior to attacking based on demographics alone.”

Broadly speaking, experts concur there is no “special” profile for mass shooters in general:

Unfortunately, it is wishful thinking to believe that there is a simple set of warning signs, a phone app or a checklist which can be used to identify a mass shooter,” said Dr. Deborah Weisbrot, director of the outpatient clinic of child and adolescent psychiatry at Stony Brook University.

She has interviewed about 200 young people, mostly teenage boys, who have made threats.

There is no specific ‘profile’ of a shooter, as is still often sometimes assumed — there have been both male and female shooters, and different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she said.

There are some commonalities in terms of psychological factors among shooters (but these do not necessarily distinguish them from other criminals). For school shooters, Ferguson et al. argue that the evidence suggests that: […] school shooters appear to be motivated by a combination of anti-social traits, resentment, and despondency, self-preservation does not appear a central motivating feature of their crimes.

According to Knoll and Annas: Certain psychosocial characteristics are common among perpetrators of mass shootings. These include problems with self-esteem, a persecutory/paranoid outlook, narcissism, depression, suicidality, and a perception of being socially rejected (Knoll 2012; Modzeleski et al. 2008; Mullen 2004; O’Toole 2000).

In an interview with Lankford and Randazzo, they discuss the relationship between suicide bombers and these shooters, and how often these are desperate people to the point of being suicidal.

Do these psychological factors differ between men and women? Well, yes. For example, men tend to seek help less often and to self-medicate more, and the chosen methods for suicide differs between men and women (which contributes to men being more likely to achieve suicide). It is not that men are naturally more suicidal than women, even if they are more successful at suicide. These issues extend to other health-related behaviors (and coping behaviors) and there are studies linking these to cultural factors such as how masculinity it conceived.

Returning to Knoll and Annas, I quote the following passage: In a review of school-associated homicides in K–12 settings, Flannery et al. (2013) noted that “[a] need remains for researchers and commentators to examine other factors beyond the individual that may explain school shootings, including culture, the social ecology of the school or other community factors” (Flannery et al. 2013, p. 6) […] The call to investigate cultural and community factors seems particularly meaningful when attention is paid to the messages perpetrators leave behind

Much more can be said, if one were to move backwards along the chain and to analyze how these other antecedent events manifest themselves differently for men and women, are perceived differently by men and women and managed different by men and women because of complex relationships between several factors which determine differences between genders. There is no simple answer, and research does not allow to make strong conclusions about it being a natural difference.


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