On March 27, 2023, claims began to spread that mass shooters in four incidents in recent years in the U.S. were transgender.
Conservative columnist Benny Johnson, for instance, tweeted that a shooter in Colorado Springs identified as nonbinary, while shooters in Denver, Aberdeen, and Nashville identified as transgender. He then wrote, "One thing is VERY clear: the modern trans movement is radicalizing activists into terrorists."
The Colorado Springs shooter identified as non binary.
The Denver shooter identified as trans.
The Aberdeen shooter identified as trans.
The Nashville shooter identified as trans.
One thing is VERY clear: the modern trans movement is radicalizing activists into terrorists.
— Benny Johnson (@bennyjohnson) March 27, 2023
The post had received over 100,000 likes. Twitter CEO Elon Musk even replied to the tweet with an exclamation point, to which Johnson replied, "These are straight facts." The post inspired memes on Twitter, and had also been shared on platforms like Reddit and Facebook.
For this story, we've defined a transgender person as someone whose gender identity does not completely align with the sex assigned at birth. A nonbinary person is someone whose gender identity does not completely align with being either a man or woman.
In short, Johnson's tweet lacked key context or misrepresented the facts. In some cases, there's no real way to know if some of the shooters identified as transgender or nonbinary — two were killed during their shootings, making it difficult to know how they identified at the time. In the Denver shooting, two shooters committed the crime, but only one has said he is transgender. And there's no evidence that any of the shooters were activists, radical or otherwise.
Below, we lay out what we know about each of the incidents listed in the meme:
Colorado Springs Shootings (2022)
The Colorado Springs nightclub shooting in November 2022 left five people dead and at least 19 other people injured. During initial trial proceedings for the shooting in February 2023, the lead detective testified in court that the suspect had told her they were nonbinary.
When attorneys first filed court documents that the Colorado Springs shooter was nonbinary, NBC reported many LGBTQ+ advocates, as well as extremism experts, expressed concerns that the claim could harm the LGBTQ+ community. The article said it was best to take what the suspect said in stride, as it was possible the shooter could be trolling (when someone makes an inflammatory or disingenuous remark meant to provoke) to create confusion, but to use they/them pronouns for the suspect regardless.
Denver Shootings (2019)
In 2019, Denver shooter Devon Erickson killed one teenager and injured eight others in a school shooting. He partnered with another person, Alec McKinney, who was a current student at the school at the time. McKinney described himself as transgender in court documents, and said that his targets for the shooting were classmates who mocked him for being that way.
Memes that emerged about the shootings used photographs of Erickson from the trial. But there was no evidence that Erickson is transgender. He was photographed in court with dyed hair, which is often discussed online as an indicator of being part of the LGBTQ+ community, but is not conclusive. For example, "blue hair and pronouns" became a popular online meme in 2021.
Aberdeen Shootings (2018)
In 2018, a shooter killed three people and injured three others. According to The Baltimore Sun, the shooter did identify as a transgender man who said in messages to friends that he wanted to begin "hormone treatment" soon.
Nashville Shootings (2023)
At the time of this publication, no hard evidence existed proving or disproving that the Nashville Covenant School shooter, who killed six people, was transgender (police fatally shot the suspect). While the Nashville police chief had said authorities believed the shooter was transgender, the shooting was still being investigated, as of this writing.
Meanwhile, reputable news organizations had published conflicting information about that shooter's gender identity.
Outlets like NBC reported that the shooter signed a message to a friend using both a given female name and a more traditional male name, while The Daily Beast reported a source close to the shooter's family said the shooter had recently announced being transgender. Other publications like The 19th* chose to wait for more information before publishing the shooter's first name.
What Research and Health Groups Say
The original viral claim was used in many cases to inspire a slew of anti-trans Twitter posts that claimed being transgender is a mental illness that would make someone more likely to be a mass shooter.
Being transgender is not a mental illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and various medical centers, including the Cleveland Clinic. In terms of more recent mass shootings in 2023, such as the Michigan State University shooting in February 2023 that killed four people and left five people injured, or the Half Moon Bay shooting in January 2023 that left seven people killed and one person injured, there's no evidence shooters were transgender.
WHO introduced a new category, "gender incongruence," in 2019. It was defined by the organization at the time as "a condition relating to sexual health rather than a mental and behavioural disorder."
Nonetheless, a recent Washington Post-KFF poll found that transgender people were twice as likely as the general population to struggle with serious mental health issues, like depression. Other studies have attributed these rates at least in part to the increased amounts of discrimination and violence transgender people face.
We've fact-checked other claims that have spread in the aftermath of the Nashville Covenant School shooting, including ones related to alleged photographs of the shooter.