Houston church shooting revives claims on trans shooters. Evidence shows they're false.

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

On a Sunday afternoon in early February, 36-year-old Genesse Ivonne Moreno walked into a Houston megachurch with her 7-year-old son and an AR-15 rifle and started shooting. A few moments later, off-duty officers at the church returned fire; the boy and a man were wounded and Genesse was killed.

In the hours that followed, as the story seeped out into the internet, right-wing influencers immediately began posting a new version of a narrative that has emerged after many recent shootings: Moreno, far-right accounts like Libs of TikTok and End Wokeness claimed, was transgender. The shooting, they posited, was yet another in an “epidemic” of shootings by transgender people.

These claims quickly left the fringe. People with massive online followings, including Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, billionaire Elon Musk and others, seized on the narrative, replying and tweeting their own versions of the claims. Fox News ran, then later changed, a story claiming Moreno had lived “as a man.” Former President Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a Libs of TikTok post with a commentary for his 10 million followers:

“Per capita violent trans extremists have to have become the most violent group of people anywhere in the world. The amount of shootings they have completed or attempted likely pales in comparison to any other radical group based on how small a group they are.”

These claims are not true − either about Moreno herself or about who is committing mass shootings in America. But with each false claim, experts warn, more people are likely to believe the idea that trans people are dangerous, ultimately putting the group at even greater risk.

Houston police and independent experts say there’s nothing to indicate Moreno ever identified as anything other than a woman. Though Moreno, who had a long criminal history that included forgery, has used both male and female aliases in the past, “she has been identified this entire time as female: she/her,” a Houston police spokesman said in a news conference, something the department confirmed to USA TODAY.

As for claims of a broader trend, experts on mass shootings agree there has been no surge in violence from the transgender community. Whether one uses a strict or a loose definition of “mass shooting,” what Donald Trump Jr. called “a clear epidemic” simply isn’t happening. Trump Jr., Taylor-Green, Cruz, Rubio and Musk by this week had not changed their claims and did not respond to requests for comment. The woman who runs Libs of TikTok acknowledged to USA TODAY that she had no proof of the shooter’s gender. 

“It’s just a false narrative that’s not based in reality at all,” said Laura Dugan, a professor of human security and sociology at Ohio State University. “The reason they say these narratives is because they have traction because they're appealing to some people because people want to believe it.”

Mar 2, 2023; National Harbor, MD, USA; Chaya Raichik, creator of Libs of TikTok, during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 2, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY
Mar 2, 2023; National Harbor, MD, USA; Chaya Raichik, creator of Libs of TikTok, during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 2, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

A false narrative is born

Over the past two years, far-right influencers and conservative media outlets have portrayed transgender people as threats to family values, sex abusers, even potential terrorists. The ensuing fear helped prompt clashes at drag shows and a flood of legislation aimed at limiting the rights of transgender people in dozens of states.

In the midst of this heated discourse, the nation witnessed a legitimate mass casualty shooting committed by a transgender shooter: The 2023 Covenant School shooting in Nashville, Tennessee.

The shooting came a few months after a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ-friendly nightclub. An attorney for the shooter in that case claimed his client identifies as nonbinary, though experts who have studied the shooting say there’s no evidence the defendant − who has been charged with hate crimes and frequently espoused anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric online − identified that way before the shooting.

Nevertheless, these two cases opened a new front in the cultural clash over transgender rights, advocates say.

“What really supercharged it was the mass shooting in Nashville,” said Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic.

In the months since the Nashville shooting, accounts like Libs Of TikTok have repeatedly pushed the narrative that the nation faces an epidemic of transgender shooters, Caraballo and other experts said.

But the numbers simply don’t add up.

January 15, 2024: An installation by artist Sandeigh Kennedy of 657 pairs of shoes in memory of the more than 600 mass shootings that occurred in the United States in 2023 is seen in Houston, Texas, as the country marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Each pair of shoes has "a marker denoting the location, date, number of injuries, and the number of lives lost at each event. Each pair is painted black to give a sense of equality to each victim," says the Texas artist. The shoes are displayed in front of the Broken Obelisk, a Barnett Newman sculpture, at the Rothko Chapel Plaza. In 1969, the city of Houston refused to place it in front of its City Hall because it was honoring Martin Luther King.

Almost all mass shootings are carried out by men

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 0.5% of adults in the United States identify as transgender.

The Violence Project, a nonprofit that studies gun violence and maintains a database of mass shootings, has collated extensive details about 197 mass shootings in the country stretching back to 1966. The group defines such shootings narrowly as incidents unconnected to other criminal activity in which more than four people were murdered with firearms in a public location.

Almost all of these were committed by men, with only four women committing a shooting and only one − Nashville − carried out by a transgender man.

Statistically, it correlates that one of the almost 200 mass shootings in the database (or 0.51% of the total) was committed by someone who is transgender, said James Densley, a criminal justice professor who co-founded the Violence Project.

“There is no basis whatsoever for the idea that there's an epidemic of transgender mass shooters,” Densley said. “What we could say is we have an epidemic of male mass shooters.”

Other databases define mass casualty events more broadly.

The Mass Killing Database, a partnership among The Associated Press, USA TODAY and Northwestern University, defines mass killings as “the intentional killing of four or more victims – excluding the deaths of unborn children and the offender(s) – by any means within a 24-hour period.” The database lists 581 such killings since 2006.

“You can count the number of transgender and nonbinary shooters on one hand,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology and law at Northwestern University who manages the database. “They’re actually underrepresented.”

Donald Trump Jr. speaks as he leaves the courtroom after testifying in his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on Nov. 13, 2023 in New York City. Trump Jr. is the first witness called by the Trump defense team during the civil fraud trial concerning allegations that he, his brother Eric, and former President Donald Trump conspired to inflate Trump Sr.'s net worth on financial statements provided to banks and insurers to secure loans. New York Attorney General Letitia James has sued seeking $250 million in damages.

A fringe conspiracy theory goes mainstream

While the idea of a “trans shooter epidemic” began as a few memes on the fringe message board 4Chan, it has now firmly cemented itself as a political talking point for American conservatives, said Dugan, the Ohio State professor.

“We can’t ignore it,” she said.

Olivera Jokic, director of the gender studies program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed and added that the transgender community already suffers from higher-than average rates of depression and suicide.

“I don't think we should be worried about trans shooters; I think we should be worried about the idea of transmitting the idea that these are people who become violent, and decided to shoot up a place because they're trans,” Jokic said. “I think that's what the media campaign is about – weaponizing ignorance.”

Densley believes there is another motive to spreading this false narrative: taking the public’s attention away from what is really causing mass shootings − guns.

”It's a useful distraction from the more important conversation, which should be around access to firearms,” Densley said. “Anything we can do to reframe mass shootings, as anything other than a gun policy issue, is politically convenient and expedient for these individuals.

“It’s red meat for right-wing voters.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Houston shooting by Genesse Moreno revives false trans shooter theory