In the immediate aftermath of Monday’s gun rampage at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, which left three nine-year-old children and three adults dead, local police described the shooter as a young female teenager.
Within hours that description had changed to that of a 28-year-old woman. And shortly after that, the authorities pivoted again, revealing that the shooter, Audrey Hale, had in recent times identified on social media, including a LinkedIn account, as a transgender male.
The swirl of identities for the Covenant school shooter was a product of the fog of confusion that commonly descends over the site of gun rampages in their instant wake. But in this case, it pointed to another factor – the shock that has followed an incident that, according to all recorded data, is exceptionally rare.
One of the rock-solid truths about the US epidemic of mass shootings is that these catastrophic events, which tear families and communities apart, are committed overwhelmingly by cis males. According to the Violence Project (TVP), men are responsible for carrying out more than 97% of all public mass shootings.
TVP, a non-partisan research group, tracks mass public shootings in the US stretching back to 1966. Its database defines such shootings relatively stringently as incidents in which four or more people are killed with a firearm in a public place.
Following this definition, there have been 190 such disasters in the past 57 years, and of those 185 were carried out by shooters who were assigned male at birth. Only five, including Hale, were assigned female at birth. Two committed the killing sprees alongside their male partners.
“Men perpetrate over 90% of homicides worldwide,” said TVP’s Jillian Peterson. “Explanations for this focus on a host of biological, social, economic and cultural factors, including societal expectations and gender roles. When it comes to mass shootings, perpetrators often see themselves in previous perpetrators and identify with them, which can contribute to copycat shootings.”
The FBI has a slightly looser definition of what it calls “active shooter incidents” that focuses on individuals who engage in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. Its database records a larger number of cases – 277 between 2000 and 2018 alone – but even here the proportion of perpetrators assigned female at birth is very low – 12, or just 4% of the total.
The number of shooters who are trans or gender nonconforming is even rarer, placing Hale in an almost unique class. The only other member of this category known in recent years is the 22-year-old shooter who killed five people in a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs last November who, according to defense lawyers, is non-binary.
Dr Jason Silva, an assistant professor at William Paterson University who has co-authored one of the only studies of the small number of mass shooters who were assigned female at birth, noted that there is still scant understanding of why the overwhelming majority of mass shooters are cis male.
“We can think about the nature versus nurture argument – are men predominantly biologically driven toward aggression because of testosterone, or are they more been nurtured into being more violent through our culture and society? We don’t have a definitive answer, but both seem plausible.”
The exceedingly rare nature of a shooter who is anything other than cis male is unlikely to stop far-right agitators from seizing on Hale’s trans identity to forward culture war objectives. Within hours of the shooting, Charlie Kirk, an extremist provocateur affiliated with Donald Trump, was calling for a ban on “gender affirming care for kids”.
Such toxic responses to the shooting are likely to find fertile ground among some sectors of Tennessee society. The state’s Republican leadership has been at the forefront of the movement to pass anti-trans legislation that has swept the US.
Earlier this month, Tennessee became the first state to ban drag shows. Its legislature is setting the pace for at least 16 other Republican-controlled states that are debating similarly draconian measures.