The Male Active Shooter—Bad Genes, Dangerous Chromosomes?

Recently on CNN a Dr. James Fallon showed the brain scans of psychopaths explaining that the amygdala, orbital cortex and other brain areas of psychopaths are not showing as much activity as in so-called “normals”. Dr. Fallon went on to explain that genetic combinations known to be associated with aggressiveness may be dangerous if combined with brains that operate in this manner, but then surprisingly admitted that one of the scans we were looking at was of his own brain and that he also has the “bad genes” for aggression. But Dr. Fallon is hardly a psychopath, and he is not telling us that a predisposition to violence is genetically predetermined—only that psychopathic brains do operate differently (according to brain scans) but others who have similar “different” operating systems are not necessarily criminal psychopaths. According to Dr. Fallon, it takes a third ingredient—childhood abuse—to bring the whole thing together.

The other day, I received a blog post from a respected writer and colleague, Cara Hoffman, claiming that nearly all those who rape, carry out mass shootings and domestic assault against women carry a Y chromosome ( And Cara reminds us that looking into the psyches of violent males is a much-needed exercise if we want to put an end to such violence.

So is it a combination of bad genes and dangerous chromosomes that creates a foundation for mass shooters?

Cara’s comments made me reflect on the fact that in my past ten years studying and interviewing terrorists, and now in observing the latest investigative news as it unfolds on the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings, I have never come across a female active shooter, the word experts in my profession use to label the person who goes on a shooting rampage with the intent to suicide or be killed in “death by cop”.

However, females do engage in terrorism. They strap on bombs and go into crowded marketplaces, theaters, restaurants and nightclubs to explode themselves. They also hijack planes, use rifles to shoot their enemies and place bombs for later detonation after they’ve slipped away, as well as engage in all the other roles of terrorism support, such as acting as couriers, fundraisers, propagandists and the like. But unlike many of the male suicide terrorists I’ve studied—particularly male Palestinians—who frequently pick up guns to go on a killing spree during which they intend to be killed, I’ve never come across a case of a female being an active shooter. When it comes to the school shooters here in the U.S. and abroad, none, to my knowledge, have been women.

Why is that?

Is active shooting—mass killing with a gun—just a male thing? And what makes a young man pick up a semi-automatic rifle and go on a shooting spree?

Terrorists are equipped by a group with a political goal, who have engaged and convinced him of a violent activity either through the bonds of brotherhood, ideology, or by playing upon any combination of his emotions relating to discrimination, marginalization, frustrated aspirations, humiliation, bereavement, traumatization – often from living in, or being shown extremely disturbing events from a conflict zone, and desire for revenge. He’s become a believer that political violence is the way to address his or other’s grievances. With a sending group whose ideology justifies killing civilians and some social support—either within the group itself or even more powerful, surrounding it, active shooting is glorified and allows him to make a violent choice.

Psychache, the term coined by suicidologist Edwin Shneidman who studied normal suicide, is the overwhelming psychic pain that propels normal people into seeking suicide as an escape. And I found the same extreme anguish in terrorists who suicide in the name of their group. From the group’s perspective, his psychic pain makes him a useful weapon to expend on behalf of their political cause. If he’s following the militant jihadi ideology, his group has convinced him that paradise is just a bullet away.

But what about the active shooter who acts alone and has no group, ideology or social support for his actions? Not living in a conflict zone, he can’t claim he’s razing down innocent children in revenge for the death of his own, that his home or resources have been taken from him, that he lives under occupation, or that he’s fighting for freedom by, as he may claim, the only means he has: attacking civilians. He is not suffering from active posttraumatic stress disorder, in which he experiences full sensory flashbacks of violent episodes that leave him in gut-wrenching agony, his heart aching with survivor’s guilt over having made it when others did not, his nerves frayed to their core with the constant coursing of neurotransmitters screaming out their painful message of high alert. He’s not in a war zone; he doesn’t have PTSD.

Or does he?

So easily in our culture, we forget that a lot of our children living right here in the U.S. grow up in active conflict zones. It’s just not a declared war. Instead it’s a tough neighborhood or maybe the carried memories of war far away, for refugees. Even many affluent homes are conflict zones to those trapped inside. Many homes, schools, churches, shopping malls. and neighborhoods are not the safe havens we wish them to be, but places where nice young boys get preyed upon by molesters, rapists and others who leave their young victim with a silent but throbbing scar on his soul. And if the child already has a genetic predisposition or an innate inability to process difficult emotions being victimized can leave him extremely vulnerable to acting out aggression. As Dr. Fallon warned—the perfect storm begins brewing.

And boys are taught from early on to be silent about their bad experiences. Just this year one grown man I was working alongside suddenly blurted out to me that he’d been raped in the men’s room as a young boy. I was amazed at his courage to tell and asked him how long he’d carried it as a secret. How many men carry such a deep secret buried inside?

When we are wondering if it’s something about chromosomes or bad genes, let’s not forget to wonder what does watching a father hit his mother do to a young boy trying to grow into manhood? It is totally emasculating and confusing; he doesn’t know who to identify with: his strong father who is beating the crap out of his mother or his mother who he wishes to save at an age when he finds he is as powerless as her in the face of his father’s violence. Ultimately, the victims of domestic violence, assault and molestation suffer the same symptoms as someone coming from a war zone: constant painful flashbacks, painful bodily arousal, guilt, anger, shame—all forms of devastating and psychologically overwhelming psychic pain. We underestimate how many young boys are raped and how many grow up in violent neighborhoods and homes. And guess what? Certain brain areas in traumatized people don’t light up on brain scans the same way they do in normals. So is it bad genes, deficient chromosomes or the experiences of young men in our society that is the problem? Or the combination of all three?

When a young boy is carrying traumatic experiences on his soul, what is he to do with it? The anger boiling inside, the shame seeping into every crevice of his cells, the complete powerlessness to address it because “boys aren’t supposed to cry” and men don’t get raped or assaulted, and the message that you must be powerful and act like a man, are too strong to override to find help.

And after blocking any normal expression of trauma or grief for those who have been wounded, what do we model to our young men about solving problems? There’s the video game that trains him for steady dopamine hits, doling out the pleasure neurotransmitter every time he “lights someone up”. And we know that when dopamine is engaged to internally medicate painful experiences, there’s no end to the addictive need, causing the brain to require more intense hits of the same experience to give the same level of dopamine high. We know many of our youth are hooked on violent computer games. And then there’s the movies and television shows that glorify the violent gun-toting hero who solves all his problems and expresses all his emotions with a gun. Most boys who watch violent movies and play these games don’t ever act out on these models, and most who are abused keep the abuse sealed painfully inside—but the rare one that snaps—given the ready availability of assault weapons in this country—cause unbelievable carnage.

Girls who grow up with violence don’t have these models. They are allowed to cry and to ask for help. And we know from research looking at young girls’ responses to trauma compared to boys, that girls are much more likely to dissociate whereas boys are more likely to act out. The latest active shooter we are being told already suffered from a mental disorder – Asperger Syndrome – that alone should not have led to violence. However we are also being told he emerged from playing video games, to smash his hard drive up before he shot his divorced mother and going on his killing rampage. For me there’s a possible message in that—and it’s not about bad genes or the Y chromosome.

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