On Thursday, a 12-year-old girl was taken into custody and placed in Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall for the alleged negligent discharge of a firearm that resulted in a school shooting at Sal Castro Middle School. Four students were injured, and there were no fatalities.
While school shootings have become frighteningly common in the United States, one thing about the most recent incident makes it an outlier: the perpetrator’s gender.
Between 1982 and 2017, there have been 95 mass shootings in the U.S. Of those, only two have been initiated by a solo female shooter. (The San Bernardino shooting in December 2016 also had a female shooter, and it is the only shooting in the period to have had a male-and-female pair working together.)
The fact that so few multiple-victim shootings are initiated by women shouldn’t come as a surprise, Sherry Hamby, a research professor of psychology at the University of the South and the founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Rather, this statistic reinforces what research has already shown about how we socialize both men and women, and the kinds of stereotypes — and consequences — associated with both.
“School shootings and multiple-victim shootings of any kind are not really unique from other forms of physical violence [when it comes to the gender of the perpetrator],” Hamby says. “All forms of physical violence are more common among men than women, but not all of them are as dramatically overly represented by male perpetrators as multiple victim shootings.”
Hamby says this has to do with an often “overused” but in this case “accurate” turn of phrase: “This speaks to the toxic aspects of masculinity in our culture.”
Hamby notes that many school shootings are motivated by anger and upset that a shooter feels over rejection by a girlfriend or a female friend who does not wish to pursue a romantic relationship, with many making a former romantic partner or a female who rejected them romantically the first victim of their crime.
Even when there has not been an instance of romantic rejection, Hamby notes, many mass shootings are motivated by “a sense of entitlement and a feeling of needing to teach the whole world a lesson,” especially when it comes to recognizing and valuing their masculinity, both sexually and otherwise.
This partly has to do with how boys are told from a young age that entitlement is inherently a part of their gender identity. “Boys are still taught that they should be able to take upon, throw upon, that it is weak or manly to back down from a fight,” Hamby says.
Furthermore, Hamby notes, the media play a big role. “There are a lot of images of masculinity in movies and TV that men are people who know how to handle weapons, and while there are certainly lots of women who know how to handle weapons, women don’t have their femininity called into question if they don’t know how to shoot,” Hamby explains. “If someone insults your honor in a bar, it’s not stigmatizing or shameful for a woman to walk away and not punch that person in the face. There are so many social scripts where men are expected to respond in an aggressive way, and if they don’t, their masculinity is called into question. Where if they don’t, it can harm their social standing.”
And this dynamic is only reinforced, she says, by the fact that “even in the most positive portrayals of coming of age, manhood is portrayed as something that has to be earned. And if it has to be earned, that means that simply being male or being assigned male or identifying as male doesn’t on its own make you a man in the same way we talk about femininity and womanhood.”
Conversely, Hamby says, when it comes to women, not only are they not given these same kinds of social messages, but often they are given opposite ones that can lead them to be “violence-averse” — and in ways that are sometimes problematic.
“Even in cases of self-defense, when a situation might really call for violence to protect your personal safety or that of a child or loved one, the messages against women responding in such a way are so extreme that it’s often hard for a woman to do what she needs to do in self-defense,” Hamby emphasizes.
Women, she says, are socially groomed to be the ones to smooth over social interactions, keep situations from escalating into conflicts, to always be conflict-avoidant, and to preserve relationships. Studies have shown that when confronted with conflict directed at them, women are often reluctant to even display verbal aggression in defense.
Hamby explains that this is not victim blaming, but it does show the power of social messages and how neither men nor women are being taught to respond in appropriate ways and with reasonable self-protection when presented with conflict. “There’s a sweet spot in the middle that everyone should be at, whether they identify as male, female, or non-binary. But clearly, we’re failing everyone when we don’t teach that sweet spot to all,” she says.
Hamby notes that when it comes to school shootings — and events like the one in Los Angeles, which allegedly involved the seeming misfiring of a weapon after a young person brought a firearm to school — another aspect commonly at play is one that goes beyond gender. Often in these situations, the young person who initiated the shooting by bringing the firearm does so because they feel fearful for their own safety at school, inadvertently creating violence in what then becomes a “vicious cycle.”
These young people might bring a gun to school to feel a sense of protection if they have been threatened by a gang, have been physically or sexually assaulted on campus, or feel threatened by other students or even teachers. The failure of schools to make children feel safe on campus can sometimes lead to tragic results.
And when it’s a young woman who is the one bringing a weapon to school, Hamby says, it’s even more concerning given the way that she might face a double standard when it comes to cultural and legal repercussions.
“It’s still very true that often we all employ that ‘boys will be boys’ mentality,” she says, noting that girls often face different consequences for their actions than boys do, especially in school settings.
“I’m not a fan of zero-tolerance policies because I think they get misused and are used to push kids out of school at times when they need to be more embedded in our social systems, not less. But we let boys off the hook, and they often face less supervision and surveillance as a result of their behaviors,” Hamby explains. “It’s pretty easy for a girl engaging in similar behavior as a boy to be labeled as pathological a lot more quickly. I would be concerned for any girl carrying a weapon and caught on any campus about whether she is treated the same as a boy. Her behavior will be seen as more deviant because it’s so much further from the stereotype about her gender.”
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