What (Little) We Know About Couples Who Kill, Like Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik

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California Shootings
Photo: Chris Carlson/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Even if the nation is getting increasingly, depressingly “accustomed” to mass shootings, yesterday’s in San Bernardino came with a strange twist: Authorities say the two confirmed suspects, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, are husband and wife. 

It appears that Farook, who worked as a local health inspector, left a workplace holiday party, then returned with Malik carrying heavy-duty weapons and wearing tactical gear. The two shot dozens of people — some or all presumably being Farook’s colleagues — before fleeing in a black SUV. An hours-long manhunt ensued in San Bernardino and neighboring Redlands, and both suspects were eventually killed. With 14 confirmed dead so far, it’s the deadliest mass shooting since Sandy Hook.

Of course, what is most striking is that a young couple with a 6-month-old child would plot together on an act of suicidal mass violence. It would seem to go against a lot what we think we know about the people who commit mass shootings or acts of terrorism. (It’s not yet clear whether this massacre falls into the latter category.)

Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatrist at Duke University who focuses on the causes of gun violence, pointed to a well-known Stanford database of mass shootings to highlight how rare it is for a male-female team — much less a married couple with a small child — to engage in this sort of violence. He emphasized that the database, which includes incidents in which three or more people were injured or killed by gunfire (not including the shooter), has the same limitations as any such attempt to track mass shootings — most important, the number of incidents captured is dependent on the level of media coverage, which changes over time. The Stanford database also doesn’t include gang- or drug-related incidents.

Still, he said, a striking number pops out: Only 3 out of the 218 incidents captured in the database, he said, involved a man and a woman working together. Specifically:

2007: In Carnation, Washington, Joseph McEnroe and his then-girlfriend Michele Anderson killed Anderson’s parents and four other family members, including young children. “When asked why she killed her entire family Michele stated that she was tired of everybody stepping on her,” a detective noted in court papers, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “When asked about Erika and the children in particular, she stated it was a combination of not wanting them to have to live with the memories and not wanting there to be any witnesses.”

2014: The husband-and-wife pair Jerad and Amanda Miller “barged into a Las Vegas restaurant called CiCi’s Pizza, shouted ‘This is a revolution!’ and fatally shot two police officers who were having lunch,” taking the officers’ weapons and covering them with Confederate and “Don’t tread on me” flags. They fled to a Walmart, killing a civilian before Amanda shot Jerad and then herself in what was apparently a suicide pact. The couple were motivated by racist, anti-government beliefs.

2015: Christopher Lee Duncan and Dora Delgado, acting with an accomplice, killed three people and injured a fourth inside a Moon Lake, Florida, home. Authorities believe the killing was drug-related. (It’s unclear why it wasn’t excluded from the database.)

This is a tiny sample size, and one can’t draw any firm conclusions from it. But it’s potentially important that in all three cases news reports indicate that the victims were targeted for a specific reason: a family dispute, radical anti-police sentiments (which then turned into a more general attempted rampage), an issue over drugs and money. To the extent that the motives of people who kill innocents can be parsed, these were less “random” than, say, the Elliot Rodger or Seung-Hui Cho killings in which long-simmering grievances exploded in a less “directed” way.

Dr. Grant Duwe, an expert on mass shootings at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said that this makes sense given that public mass shootings of the random, Cho or Rodger sort tend to have different, more internally oriented motives. “Mass public shootings are highly visible examples of expressive violence,” he said in an email. “Because those who carry out mass public shootings are typically motivated by revenge for perceived mistreatment, the violence is very personal. As such, it’s uncommon that more than one individual will share the same grudge, paranoia/mental illness, etc.”

It appears to be less uncommon for two people — even a husband and wife — to share the perception that they’ve been wronged by a specific group or institution. It’s when the motives are more external, in other words, that a shooter is more likely to find one or multiple partners. Early signs point to that being the case in San Bernardino, given the holiday-party nature of the event.

But the sad truth is that so many different factors go into a given instance of mass violence that it’s very hard to produce a meaningful “model” of what mass shooters look like that doesn’t swoop in a giant group of people, 99.99 percent of whom will never commit mass violence. That’s why many researchers think gun control is the only way to meaningfully tamp down on these tragedies.

It only gets harder to try to explain mass shootings perpetrated by multiple people, whatever the genders of the perpetrators. “Given that only 8 of the 166 mass public shootings since 1915 have involved more than one offender,” said Duwe, “I don’t think there’s much we can glean from those 8 cases.”