Opinion: Female mass shooter can teach us about Adam Lanza

Laura L. Lovett says lessons from Brenda Spencer can help prevent another school mass shooting.

Editor’s Note: Laura L. Lovett is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a founding co-editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth.
By Laura L. Lovett, Special to CNN
    (CNN) -- “I don’t like Mondays.” This was the answer given by one of America’s first contemporary mass school shooters, Brenda Spencer, when asked why she had fired 30 rounds with a semiautomatic rifle at a San Diego elementary schoolyard on January 29, 1979.
    She killed the school’s principal and custodian and wounded nine schoolchildren, some as young as 8.
    So unfathomable was the event at the time that this action even inspired a popular song.
    But today, Spencer has been nearly lost to our collective memory.
    Why is she not remembered? Perhaps because she is one of only two female school shooters that we know of. (In 1985, Heather Smith shot her ex-boyfriend and another boy at her high school before committing suicide.)
    Our biases about gender and violence predispose us to want to make Spencer the outlier.
    While it is true that most school shooters have been male and that our cultural association of masculinity and violence may contribute to a shooter’s profile, this association also leads our society to de-emphasize what we might learn from women like Spencer.
    And while all of these shootings have complex causes that cannot be reduced to gender alone, when we try to make sense of these tragedies by going back to history of school shootings, we need to do so with a clear eye in order to make meaningful comparisons.
    Shootings at elementary schools are rare; killing elementary school children is even rarer, with the 2006 killing of Amish school children standing out in recent memory.
    Our usual recitation of sorrow takes us to Columbine or Virginia Tech, Paducah or Jonesboro, but not to that horrible Monday in San Diego.
    Despite its profound impact around the world, Spencer’s rampage is rarely included in timelines of mass school shootings.
    This is surprising, because of all the unbelievably tragic stories of shootings on school campuses, Spencer’s actions come the closest to offering a potentially illuminating precedent to the Newtown shootings.
    Spencer may have much to tell us about Adam Lanza.
    Spencer, like Lanza, grew up in a home in which a divorced parent was an avid gun collector.
    Her father Wallace Spencer, who worked as in the audio-visual department of San Diego State University, had given his daughter a.22 caliber semiautomatic rifle for Christmas the month before she opened fire on children.
    Unlike most school shooters, Spencer did not kill herself after she took aim at children. When asked why she had done it, she responded simply that the decision to shoot up Grover Cleveland Elementary School had “livened things up” for the week.
    Later, in a parole hearing, Spencer plaintively noted that she had asked her father for a radio and had been given a gun. She had warned classmates at her high school that she and her father kept enough ammunition in their house for “a small army.”
    Both Lanza and Spencer appeared to have planned on using many more of the rounds than they fired. Spencer’s 30 rounds, with an almost one-third accuracy rate, were ready to be supplemented with 500 more when she eventually surrendered.
    Spencer was described by a classmate as “really scrawny ... a real little girl – real thin.” We now have “improved” weapons, like the Bushmaster AR-15 that Lanza used, that they are light enough for young people, even skinny ones, to use with deadly accuracy.
    Comparing Spencer’s and Lanza’s attacks on small children and school staff members, we begin to see that these terrible episodes are more than an expression of a male-dominated culture of violence.
    Much more salient are the facts that Spencer and Lanza both came from homes with ready access to guns and massive amounts of ammunition. Both had parents that celebrated gun use, and both appear to have been psychologically troubled.
    As we try to piece together some meaning from the Newtown tragedy, hoping that we can find a way to prevent its repetition, we need to interrogate what might have caused it.
    We cannot learn from school shootings that are not remembered.
      Allowing Spencer to fade from our memory robs us of meaningful points of comparison that might make us slow or stop the cycle of violence where troubled young person after troubled young person seeks to turn their pain into unforgivable pain for others.
      The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura L. Lovett.