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Why Are Most Rampage Shooters Men?

A makeshift memorial hangs on a lamp post across the street from the Washington Navy Yard, on Sept. 20.
Carolyn Kaster
A makeshift memorial hangs on a lamp post across the street from the Washington Navy Yard, on Sept. 20.

Aaron Alexis, the man who police say killed more than a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, has joined a heinous parade of mass murdering shooters, nearly all men.

It's a fact. Since 1982, according to Mother Jones, there have been more than 60 mass shootings — in which four or more people died — in the United States. In only one instance was the gun user female: On Jan. 30, 2006, retired postal worker Jennifer San Marco murdered seven people and committed suicide in Goleta, Calif.

So why is it that most American mass murderers who kill with guns are men? To help us with the question, we turn to the listserv of the Homicide Research Working Group, a clutch of writers, researchers, academics and others who explore together the facts and fallacies of murder.

Here are a couple of their observations:

'Being Less Lethal'

Generally speaking, says Lin Huff-Corzine of the University of Central Florida, women do not kill as often as men. She and other researchers have cooperated on an upcoming article for the quarterly journal Homicide Studies, based on data from the FBI. Between 2001 and 2010, less than 8 percent of mass murder offenders in the U.S. were women, she says, adding that some of the women included in the statistics assisted in a crime but did not pull a trigger.

In part, Huff-Corzine says, "this may be explained by women's weapons of choice even when they do want to do serious bodily harm to someone. Specifically, men are more comfortable than women when using guns, whereas women are more likely to choose knives. Guns are simply more effective than knives when killing another person. This is especially the case when three or more people are murdered."

And, Huff-Corzine says, "women are comfortable with being less lethal."

The Mystery Of Murder

"It is not just mass murder offenders who are typically male," says Candice Batton, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. "The majority of all homicide perpetrators are male — approximately 90-91 percent. Research indicates that males are more likely to be violent, especially lethally violent, than females."

And why is that? "There are different ideas about this," Batton says. "Some research supports the idea that males are more likely than females to develop negative attributions of blame that are external in nature, that is: 'The cause ... of my problems is someone else or some force outside of me'. And this translates into anger and hostility toward others."

Batton says that women, on the other hand, "are more likely to develop negative attributions of blame that are internal in nature, that is: 'The cause of my problems is some failing of my own: I didn't try hard enough, I'm not good enough.' And this, in turn, tends to translate into feelings of guilt and depression that are targeted toward oneself."

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.