gun violence

Tashfeen Malik and the Role Women Play in Mass Shootings

While mass shootings are horrifyingly common in America, last week's attack at San Bernardino stands out because one of the shooters was a woman. How common is this, really?

Lyz Lenz

Screengrab via NBC

On December 2, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, walked into an office complex in San Bernardino, killing 14 people and wounding 21. That someone in America committed a mass shooting using a gun they had legally and easily purchased is not remarkable, sadly—the nation has seen more shootings than days of the year in 2015. What was strange, as several outlets reported, was that the shooting involved a duo and one of the shooters was a woman, as mass murder is field dominated almost entirely by lone men.

In the wake of the shooting pundits have suggested that Tashfeen Malik was either a perhaps unwilling accomplice, forced to leave her six-month-old baby, or that she was an extremist who radicalized her husband. But the reality may be far more complicated and unknowable.

Mass Shootings by the Numbers

The FBI defines a mass murder as "as a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders." They are differentiated from serial murders or spree murders because, as the FBI further clarifies "they usually involve one location and are part of an ongoing incident."

An FBI report that looked at active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013 found that out of 160 active shooter incidents, only six were committed by women. Of those women, only one qualifies as a mass murderer—Jennifer San Marco, a former US Postal worker who shot and killed seven people on January 30, 2006. In addition, of those incidences that qualify as mass murder and involved two or more shooters, none involved a husband and wife couple.

According to more recent data that applies the term mass shooting more broadly than the FBI, the San Bernardino shooting is the 355th mass shooting in 2015 alone. The data, compiled by the subreddit Guns are Cool, defines a mass shooting by the number of people shot rather than the casualties. It also excludes gang violence, drug-related murders, and robberies.

Over half of the perpetrators tallied in the Guns are Cool study are unknown or unidentified. However, from what is known, only one out of the 355 mass shootings was caused by a lone female shooter. Nine involved two or more shooters, and only two of those incidences involved woman and a man—the shooting in San Bernardino and a case in Moon Lake, Florida, where Christopher Lee Duncan and Dora Delgado killed three people and injured a fourth in February.

The Stanford database of mass shootings goes back to 1966 and tracks shootings in America in which three or more people were injured or killed (not including the shooter); it, too, excludes armed robberies, gang violence, and drug-related murders. The database, using vastly different criteria than the subreddit (it's based on deaths rather than victims), reports 216 mass shootings since 1966. Of those, only five involved female shooters and three involved male/female couples.

Yet, while the number of mass shootings can drastically raise or lower depending on how you categorize a mass shooting—one number remains constant and that is the number of husband and wife mass shooters: Three.

Why So Few?

Popular theories for the lack of female participation in violent gun crime often ascribe the "weaker sex" reasoning. In 1973 British Crime theorist Colin Wilson wrote, "The reason is obvious: women's basic instinct is for home and security, and it is unlikely she'll do anything to jeopardize that security." For years, that has been the dominant argument: Women aren't as violent. They are more passive-aggressive, more likely to be use poison, drowning, and other non-direct methods of violence.

Yet in her book, When She Was Bad, Patricia Pearson argues that women have the same capacity for violence as men, but it has just been sublimated by a society too quick to dismiss or justify female violence. She points to statistics that show that women are just as likely to be child abusers and that women commit the vast majority of child murders. "The question," she writes, "is how do we come to perceive what girls and women do? Violence is still universally considered to be the province of the male. Violence is masculine. Men are the cause of it, and women and children are the ones who suffer...It is one of the most abiding myths of our time."

Violence is still universally considered to be the province of the male. Violence is masculine.

The problem is that women's violence is sublimated by societies that don't sanction its expression. As a result, women tend to express violent urges in "feminine" realms—child murder, child abuse, angel of mercy killings. These are the areas where female aggression reigns supreme. Pearson cites the work of anthropologist Victoria Burbank, who found that women engage publicly in physical aggression in those societies that sanction its expression, concluding that, when allowed to rise to the surface, female aggression can equal that of men.

So perhaps the question isn't how a woman could be so violent. It's perhaps less productive to ask who convinced her or whether she was pure evil, and rather to ask why she felt she had the permission to do be violent—or why she felt desperate enough not to care.

Historical Precedents

On December 24, 2007, Michele K. Anderson and Joseph Thomas McEnroe killed six of their family members, including two young children. Anderson confessed to the murders, which she said were premeditated. "Look, I know what you're asking me," she told the court in February, "Yes, it was premeditated; and yes, I was fed up with everything." Anderson says she committed the murders alone. McEnroe was convicted earlier this year after a trial in which he claimed that Anderson brainwashed him, turning him into an "attack dog" and forcing him to commit the murder. Anderson's trial is set to begin on this January.

On June 8, 2014 Jerad and Amanda Miller began a shooting spree in Reno, Nevada that left five people dead, including themselves. The Millers had extreme anti-government views, and Jerad was present at the 2014 standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management. He gave an interview to NBC four months before the shooting where he claimed, "I feel sorry for any federal agents that want to come in here and try to push us around or anything like that. I really don't want violence toward them, but if they're going to come bring violence to us, well, if that's the language they want to speak, we'll learn it." The couple began their spree at a CiCi's Pizza and ran to a Walmart. In the confusion, a man with a hand gun confronted Jerad, not realizing that Amanda was also one of the shooters. Amanda killed him.

On February 10, 2015, Christopher Lee Duncan and Dora Delgado shot and killed three men inside a mobile home in Moon Lake, Florida. A fourth person was injured but she made an escape. News reports indicate that the shooting was drug-related.

Folie à Deux

Folie à deux is a French term for a madness shared by two, and it's the reason that mass shootings committed by couples are so rare. In order for a couple to work together, they have to have the shared delusion that they've been wronged. Their mutual delusion must become a constant feedback loop inside the confines of their relationship. To find two people to journey together on this same manic escalation that mutually burns is rare.

Author Tori Telfer, whose book Lady Killers will be published in 2016 by Harper Perennial, writes that folie à deux "illuminates the dark side of love and the fragility of a person's identity as a Single Self."

We know nothing of the relationships that fester into these explosive rages or the women who are one half of these equal parts. What we can learn from the past is simply this: In each of the past instances of husband and wife mass shooters, the woman has played a stronger role in the killings than initially suspected. Somewhere more than unwilling victim and something less than evil seducer, these women lie in that disquieting middle where perception and actuality collide.