What Do We Make of a Female Active Shooter?

We know very little about women who attempt mass killings, mostly because there are so few of them.

A hand in silhouette holding a shotgun
Edward Olive / Getty

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.

After Tuesday’s shooting, a host of articles popped up noting precisely that. The same thing happened in 2015 after the far deadlier San Bernardino shooting, in which one of the killers was a woman. One headline on NBC News reads: “The YouTube Shooting Suspect Was a Woman. That’s Unusual,”—as though her gender makes the incident so baffling that it’s impossible to interpret it beyond that surprising fact.

Crime can be gendered in all sorts of ways. I study female serial killers, and even though they’re very rare and typically overlooked by history, there have been hundreds of them throughout the centuries—enough to really study. If you ignore the male Night Stalkers and Red Rippers, and focus on history’s quiet poisoners and mad countesses, you can see how serial killing can be interpreted, from some angles, as an almost stereotypically feminine act. It’s a tricky crime. It requires plotting and calculation. There’s often a large degree of emotional manipulation involved—convincing your victim to come home with you, persuading them to drink that cup of poisoned tea. Serial murderesses are often really good at being serial murderesses, and tend to kill for much longer than their male counterparts. It’s the sort of crime that lends itself well to quiet personalities, and if you don’t look like a “typical” serial killer, it’s easier not to get caught.

Mass murderers also plot and plan and scheme, but the aesthetics of mass shootings couldn’t be more different than those of serial killings. If the serial killer is a spider, the mass murderer is a rampaging bear. No matter how much planning they do beforehand, the violence is explosive, terrifying, and over fairly quickly. It is expressive violence (violence designed to communicate something), rather than instrumental violence (violence designed to achieve something). Female serial killers often use the latter, by using murder as a means to go after life-insurance policies or social status, for example. Many of the most sadistic male serial killers used the former, “expressing” their rage against women or their mother or gay men on body after almost identical body. The irony is that women in general are seen as more emotionally expressive, but when it comes to murder, they are seen as practical, cold, careful. This is part of the reason a female mass murderer, who embodies the aesthetics of male violence, is so difficult to comprehend.

Elements of mass murder often dovetail with other culturally “male” themes, like going out in a “blaze of glory,” or the general sensibilities of war (the Aurora, Colorado, shooter wore tactical clothing; the Las Vegas shooter and the University of Texas Tower shooter of 1966 both positioned themselves like snipers). The explosive violence of the mass attack also fits into preexisting ideas of toxic masculinity: the entitlement, the performativity, the sense of ownership over others’ lives, the self-pity. Aghdam may well have felt some or all of these emotions. Entitlement is not solely the realm of men. Neither is rage. But when it comes to mass shootings committed by women, there simply aren’t enough numbers to sketch out a pattern.

“We’re pretty good about understanding why so many men commit mass shootings,” says Eric Madfis, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington at Tacoma who specializes in mass shootings. “In terms of why it happens with women and whether there are strong similarities within that population, it’s harder to say, ‘Oh, it’s A, B, C, and D.’”

There are some things we can say, though. The first is that Aghdam is an anomaly among the anomalies. “Female mass shooters are much more likely to be about familicide or workplace shootings,” says Madfis, “so a public mass shooting in a place where she doesn’t have a direct connection—that’s interesting.” (He does note that since Aghdam had multiple YouTube channels, she may have been enacting a workplace shooting in an oblique way by visiting YouTube’s headquarters.)

It’s also possible to piece together a fragmented theory about why there aren’t more female shooters. In 1997, researchers who studied gender and strain found that girls tend to internalize strain and turn any resulting violence onto themselves (by cutting, or abusing drugs), instead of turning that strain outward and unleashing it on others. Men are obviously socially conditioned to be more physically aggressive, and higher levels of testosterone make them more prone to this aggression. Couple this with the fact that humans’ frontal lobes—the area of the brain responsible for things like impulse control—aren’t necessarily fully developed until their mid-20s, and you have the potential for reactive, violent behavior, especially among young men. Male psychopaths are more likely to commit violent crimes than female psychopaths, who tend to use their aggression more for relational and verbal sparring than for physical violence—and so on, and so forth.

All that being said, there are more female killers like Aghdam than most people realize. In Violence and Gender, Madfis and Cohen write that there are “multiple homicide cases in which females killed or injured numerous people at schools—just not enough to strictly qualify as a mass murder.” There are also a handful of cases in which school rampages were “planned but not carried out by females.”

It makes sense that institutions haven’t, for the most part, set aside large amounts of money to study this very, very small percentage of criminals. But it’s a fine line. Since female shooters like Aghdam “violate assumptions regarding the gendered nature of ... mass violence,” Madfis and Cohen write, it’s easier to either ignore them or not take them seriously. Oddly enough, this can end up letting violent men off the hook, Madfis argues. It’s a sleight of hand: By not talking about female incidents of violence, it becomes possible to treat violence as genderless.

Violence is a human problem, but it doesn’t transcend gender. The female active shooter tells us, by her presence, that women can be violent, too. But she tells us something more significant by her absence: that violence is still mostly the domain of men. Of course, it’s not solely the domain of men, which is why writing about violent women becomes a convoluted task, full of asterisks and footnotes. But ignoring the female mass killer is just as mistaken as exaggerating her significance. For us to truly understand the female mass murderer, she would need to become statistically significant. Hopefully she never does.