Opinion: If Mass Shooters Are Supposedly Mentally Ill, Why Are They Almost All Men?

Mental health statistics cannot explain the mass shooter gender disparity.
Mental health statistics cannot explain the mass shooter gender disparity. Photo by Tobias Berchtold/Flickr
It’s a common Republican talking point that America in general and Texas specifically does not have a gun problem; it has a mental health problem. If that’s true, then why are nearly all mass shooters men?

We definitely do have a mental health problem. Texas ranks dead last in the nation when it comes to mental health care access. Two-thirds of Texas counties don’t have a single psychiatrist. This is exacerbated by the state’s continued refusal to accept the federal Medicaid expansion, since poverty often leads to mental illnesses such as depression.

To their credit, Texas Republicans have begun increasing spending on mental health in the state by 11 percent. To their shame, they only appear to be doing it to deflect from the fact that mass shootings have increased 62.5 percent in the years since passing permitless carry. Whatever the reasoning, it’s an objectively good thing that the state is throwing some more money at the mental health crisis.

However, it doesn’t answer the question. If mass shootings are caused by the mentally ill, then why are they almost exclusively done by men?

Tracking mass shootings is difficult thanks to gun lobby efforts to oppose studying the matter over the last half century. Much of the work is done by journalists, advocacy groups, and non-government research organizations. One of those is The Violence Project, a non-partisan research group formerly funded by the National Institute of Justice. They have a database of American mass shootings going back to 1966.

Of the 172 mass shootings they catalogued committed in that time, only four (2 percent) were done by women. Two of those were accomplices of male shooters. Zero of the K-12 school shooters were women.

This is significant because mental illness obviously affects both men and women. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Illness, women are 50 percent more likely to exhibit signs of any mental illness. Logically, if mental illness was the sole driver of mass shootings, then most shooters would be women. Instead, they are a fraction.

Granted, American men are far less likely to seek treatment for mental health than American women. The reasons for this are incredibly complicated, but women are 1.6 times more likely to receive mental health care than men.

Still, no matter how you torture the math, there is no way to reconcile those mental health numbers with the gender disparity in mass shootings. Even if we account for the fact that men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide (roughly half of mass shooters expressed suicidal thoughts before their attacks) it still doesn’t add up. Men making up 70 or 80 percent of shooters could possibly be explained away by disparities in mental health treatment and the way mental illnesses are expressed across genders, but 98 percent? That is a mockery of statistical understanding.

So, we have to look elsewhere. For instance, According to Pew Research Center, men are 56 percent more likely to own a gun than women. Women are also only 19 percent of AR-15 owners (some estimates say they are 1 percent) — a weapon that has become almost like a talisman to mass shooters. When the rifle was banned for public sale, mass shootings went down, and they went up again when the assault weapon ban was lifted. Again, the vast majority of the people who own the weapons are men.

There is another factor alongside being a man and owning a gun that consistently comes up in mass shooting aftermaths: hating women. Another survey of mass shootings done by Bloomberg found that 60 percent of mass shootings either started as acts of domestic violence against women or were perpetuated by men with histories of domestic violence against women. Misogyny is a social plague, but it’s generally not a mental illness.

Texas Republicans aren’t wrong that the problem of mass shooting is located in the mind. However, it’s not mental illness as understood or treated by the medical industry. Any honest look at how mental illness affects genders backs that up.

Instead, men are being fed something else, a power fantasy backed by irresponsible gun marketing, fascist bigotry, and constant paranoid anger from a right-wing media machine. Nothing in the billions of dollars Texas Republicans are spending on mental health with address those problems, so there is little reason to think they’ll reduce mass shootings by a single percent. Math, like a bullet, just keeps going until it hits something.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner