The biggest surprise about Tuesday’s shooting at YouTube wasn’t the fact that there was a shooting. Americans are horribly used to the ritual of these events by now: the sick feeling of waiting for the body count, the time it takes for biographical information to trickle out and a motive to be set forth, the think pieces advocating for fewer guns or more guns, excoriating white male rage or toxic masculinity. But one part of the script was upended in Tuesday’s shooting: The person holding the gun was a woman.
“Mass murder is typically a profoundly male act,” write the criminology professors Eric Madfis and Jeffrey W. Cohen in a paper published in Violence and Gender. The statistics leave no room for doubt: Women are far less likely to commit any sort of murder, much less mass murder. According to Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, 93.4 percent of mass killers are male, as are 88.3 percent of homicide offenders in general. And then someone like Nasim Najafi Aghdam, the YouTube shooter, comes along.
To be fair, Aghdam does not technically qualify as a mass murderer. She wounded three before apparently killing herself, while a mass murderer is defined by the FBI as someone who kills four or more in a single incident, usually in a single location. She was an “active shooter,” which the Department of Homeland Security defines as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area,” though it appears that she may have intended to be a mass killer; police say she tried out her weapon at a gun range before heading to YouTube to wreak havoc. A narrative of resentment and payback for YouTube’s policies is emerging as her motivation. But though we’re slowly learning about Aghdam’s individual case, it’s extremely difficult to place her in the broader context of female active shooters or mass murderers—because there’s barely a “broader context” at all. They are so statistically rare that they’ve never actually been studied.