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Nashville an outlier as data show mass shootings by women are extremely rare

Women make up about 5 percent of all assailants in mass killing events, experts say

Law enforcement officers stand outside of Woodmont Baptist Church while waiting for children to be reunited with their families after a mass shooting at The Covenant School on March 27, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.Seth Herald/Getty

A woman who opened fire in a private Nashville school on Monday, killing three children and three adults, is the first female school shooter to kill four or more people, according to specialists who have tracked decades of mass killing events.

The six victims killed at The Covenant School in Nashville included three 9-year-old students and three adults in their 60s, officials said, including the head of the school. The suspect, a 28-year-old woman who was killed by police, is believed to be a former student.

The suspect’s gender left some experts surprised because female perpetrators in such crimes are so uncommon. James Alan Fox, a criminology, law, and public policy professor at Northeastern University, said women make up only about 5 percent of all assailants in mass killing events.

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“Murder itself is a male-dominated activity, 90 percent of murders are committed by men,” said Fox, who maintains a database of mass killings going back to 2006 in partnership with the Associated Press and USA Today.

Fox’s dataset defines a mass killing event as having four or more victims and includes “deaths by guns, knives, fires, vehicles, and other weapons in public and in private.” He said 543 mass killings in the US since 2006 involved more than 600 male assailants and just 47 women.

“Out of the 47 women, almost all of them have killed family members,” he said.

Only four women in that group committed their crimes in public spaces, including the shooting in Nashville, and in two of those cases the women had a male accomplice, he said.

In 2019, Francine Graham and David Anderson killed six people at a kosher market in Jersey City. The attackers, who prosecutors said were driven by a hatred of Jews, had five guns, including an AR-15-style rifle and a shotgun.

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Four years earlier, Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire in a social center in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 people. The married couple was later killed in a shootout with police.

In January 2006, Jennifer San Marco, a former US postal service worker, shot and killed six people in a postal facility in Goleta, Calif., before taking her own life. Prior to the shooting, San Marco also shot and killed a former neighbor in Santa Barbara.

The Violence Project, which maintains a national database of public mass shootings going back to 1966, also lists just four female assailants out of 189 perpetrators in its database.

“The shooting today is a stark reminder that mass shootings are not exclusive to men,” Jillian Peterson, co-founder of the Violence Project and a criminal justice professor at Hamline University, said in an e-mail Monday.

“This is the first time a female school shooter has killed four or more people, although there have been instances of women and girls firing guns at schools before,” she said, noting an attack in San Diego, Calif., in 1979 where a 16-year-old girl shot and killed a custodian and the principal at Grover Cleveland Elementary School.

Peterson said it is especially unusual for a shooting to take place at a small, Christian private school.

“Most school mass shootings take place at large, suburban, public high schools,” she said.

The motive behind the shooting in Nashville remains unknown, but specialists who study school shootings were not surprised to learn the shooter was reportedly a former student there.

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“Very often with school shootings, historically, it’s somebody who has some kind of connection to the school,” said Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who co-authored an article on mental illness and mass shootings published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry in 2021.

He said female school shooters, though they remain extremely rare, are a “new and concerning demographic.”

“I see more people committing these kinds of crimes because there are a lot of angry, unstable people out there,” he said. “It was an angry white male phenomenon, and now it seems like potentially it is broadening.”

He also pointed to loose gun restrictions in some states where it is relatively easy to purchase a high-powered weapon.

“It’s really just the availability of guns, because even though there are some demographic trends, anybody can buy a gun, and anybody can pull the trigger,” he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com.