Opinion | Civil Rights

Female shooters shouldn't be ignored

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

When we think of mass assailants, we most often think of angry young men, but we cannot ignore the angry young women who also commit acts of violence. This misconception puts us at risk. Recent public attacks and attempted attacks demonstrate just how dangerous it can be to dismiss warning signs solely based on gender.

Most recently a shooter in the Highland Ranch STEM school tragedy [npr.org] was a transgender student in the process of transitioning from female to male. Sol Pais and Elizabeth Lecron were "infatuated" with the Columbine shooting, with Lecron traveling to Littleton, Co., last month ahead of the 20th anniversary of the shooting and Lecron having visited in August.   

Historically, female shooters have remained relatively unknown to many despite homicidal plans and attacks. Many people view Columbine as the first school shooting in the history of the U.S. In truth, one of the first school shootings was executed by Brenda Ann Spencer - a female - who opened fire and killed a principal and custodian and also injured eight children and a police officer.

Spencer, then 16-years-old, lived across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. She aimed her .22 caliber semiautomatic rifle through her front window toward the victims and pulled the trigger again and again. Subsequent interviews with Spencer indicate that the adults were shot because they disrupted her plan to kill dozens of students.

While we do not want to give female shooters attention, we are missing an opportunity to thwart a plot if we operate with the naïve, false belief that they do not engage in such violence. There are far more incidents involving females than the public realizes, which poses a danger because even visible risk factors and warning signs are overlooked solely on the basis of gender expression.

Researchers as well as mass media focus on male shooters (or assailants) because they are more common than females and their attacks result in more injuries and death. By extension, the media has a fondness for covering incidents with high death rates.

Common language such as mass shooter can be misleading and results in less research or coverage of female attacks because the number of deaths is too low to qualify as a mass public killing. A mass public assailant is typically unfamiliar with their victims. Rather, the individual fires (or uses other means) rapidly and randomly, killing four or more individuals in a fairly public place.

Mass public killings involve weeks, even years, of planning. These incidents are planned and strategic. The media sensationalizes mass public shootings due to high death rates, therefore incidents about males are prominent in the minds of our nation.

Females, though less likely to commit mass public killings, perpetrate rampage killings which, by definition, are perpetrated in front of others, by one or more current or former students or employees who aim for multiple victims randomly or symbolically. Rampage assaults generally occur near or inside a school, campus or workplace; think of an individual leaving work, heading home to grab an AR-15, then returning to the location seeking revenge against a classmate or co-worker. Rampage killings usually do not involve the lengthy planning typical of mass public killings.

A third category is targeted violence. Targeted violence has an end goal that has been cognitively processed and planned for a significant period of time. Targeted violence, though planned, is often at a smaller scale and does not qualify as a mass public killing due to fewer fatalities and the fact that the victims have been strategically chosen.

It is clear that we are missing potential female perpetrators due to semantics. By extension, rampage and targeted incidents lead to fewer deaths, which make them less "appealing" to mainstream media that is drawn to sensationalizing high-fatality tragedies. In addition, it appears as though sexism contributes to the misunderstanding as to the number and motivation behind female assailants.

Regardless of whether a plot is thwarted or carried through to fruition, females are often labeled "the weaker sex" that has been influenced by a male who is the lead planner. Often, females are said to commit crimes of passion because of being "a woman scorned," which is an incorrect interpretation of the facts. Females who perpetrate rampage and targeted killings often work alone. Among those who did not work alone, to date, females were the lead planners who convinced males to join them in the attack. 

Regardless of how oversaturated the media is with coverage of male shooter incidents, we cannot forget that females are participating in these horrific acts as well. Just last year Nasim Aghdam shot and injured three people in the YouTube Headquarters in California; and Snochia Moseley shot and killed three people in a Rite Aid Distribution Center in Maryland. Immediate reports were that Aghdam was targeting a former boyfriend and his new girlfriend, which were sexist-based, uninformed comments.

Other recent female assailants include Nicole Cevario who planned an attack on Catoctin High School in Frederick County [cnn.com], Maryland. Cevario bought bomb-making items and a shotgun for a large-scale attack, recorded the school safety plan and made references to Columbine and Sandy Hook in her journal. In 2017, Victoria McCurley and a male accomplice planned a Columbine-type attack against high school classmates and staff at Etowah High School in Woodstock, Georgia. Explosives and a kill list were found in her home.  

Like their male counterparts, females seek fame, collect injustices and wish to seek revenge and they are far too and knowledgeable of other attacks. They also have high indications of suicidality. They are more alike their male counterparts than different. They are dangerous.

It is important to invest research into recognizing at-risk females in order to help prevent a rampage or targeted shooting. The first step is to understand the types of shootings and eliminate sexism because, as with males, females are increasingly planning and carrying out these acts. Regardless of gender, we must be vigilant and report concerning behavior because both males and females are at risk of perpetrating such an act - and we must do all we can to prevent these attacks. 

Lisa Pescara-Kovach is an associate professor of educational psychology and director for the Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide at the University of Toledo where she is also the chair of the Mass Violence Collaborative.  

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