Mass Shootings Are Yet Another Reason to Take Domestic Abuse Seriously

The through-line for many mass shooters is a history of violence against women – but that shouldn't be the reason we start to pay attention

A makeshift memorial near the scene of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Credit: Eric Gay/AP

Devin Patrick Kelley, who opened fire in a Texas church earlier this week, killing 26 people and injuring many more, was discharged from the Air Force in 2012 for assaulting his wife and breaking his infant step-son’s skull. Though the Air Force described the might with which he struck the baby as "a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm," Kelley served just 12 months in confinement. If he'd been sentenced to five years – the maximum sentence for assault allowed under court martial – he would still have been behind bars on the day he opened fire on the small-town congregation.

There's a connection here that shouldn’t be ignored: The most common thread between America’s mass shootings is a history of domestic violence. We shouldn't minimize the seriousness of domestic violence itself – intimate partner violence is its own epidemic that ruins lives and shatters families – not just as a precursor to violence with more casualties. But if America took violence against women more seriously, we could have the added benefit of locking up violent, unstable people who, if left unchecked, might end up evolving into mass shooters.

"We can tell you there was a domestic situation going on in this family," Commander Freeman Martin of the Texas Department of Public Safety said at a briefing, according to NBC News. "The suspect’s mother-in-law attended this church."

While it turned out that Kelley’s mother-in-law was not present at the church at the time of the shooting, his grandmother-in-law, Lula White, was there, and was killed. The fact that a family member was targeted puts Kelley in the company of more than half of mass shooters. A comprehensive analysis of mass shootings in America between 2009 and 2016 from Everytown for Gun Safety found that in at least 54 percent of the shootings studied, the perpetrator shot a former intimate partner or family member.

That statistic doesn't even factor in the shooters with histories of domestic disputes and complaints of violence who may not have been directly targeting their family members or partners in their attacks.

Robert Dear, who shot and killed three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in 2015, was accused of domestic violence by his then-wife in 1997.

Cedric Ford, who shot 17 people and killed three last year at the Newton, Kansas plant where he worked, was served with a restraining order shortly before the shooting, after he was accused of abusing his ex-girlfriend.

Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history until the shooting in Las Vegas last month, reportedly beat and abused his wife for years.

Adam Lanza's massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was apparently motivated by violence toward his mother, whom he killed before going to the school.

Before he fired into the crowd at a Las Vegas music festival last month, killing 59 people, Stephen Paddock reportedly berated his girlfriend in public on a regular basis.

How exactly domestic violence and mass shootings are linked has not yet been studied sufficiently to spell out whether one truly leads to the other, though the correlation is too strong to be ignored. Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at State University of New York, Cortland – who was written several books on gun policy over the last two decades – suggests that it’s not so much that domestic violence leads to mass, public violence, but that both stem from a similar place of anger and need for control.

"The correlation between domestic violence and mass shooters shows a propensity of violence and a desire to exert control over people close to them that is disturbing," he says. "It doesn’t mean that most people who abuse a domestic partner is going to then commit a mass shooting. That isn’t true. But it suggests that there are some underlying factors at play that we need to know more about."

"Part of the problem is that the mass shooters often end up dead, either they kill themselves or they’re killed by the police as they’re being pursued. And that limits your ability to get more information about these things," Spitzer says.

While our understanding of the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings is still developing, and we don't know yet exactly how much one raises the risk of the other, we do know that guns make domestic abuse exponentially more likely to end in death. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk that the violence will escalate to homicide by 500 percent.

In an attempt to prevent this kind of deadly escalation, the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, a 1996 amendment to the federal Gun Control Act, makes it illegal for anyone convicted of felony or misdemeanor domestic violence charges to purchase or keep a gun. But this is not enough to keep guns out of the hands of abusers who go on to kill their intimate partners, to shoot strangers in public, or both.

There are a few reasons the current federal law is not enough: Because it only applies to people who have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, it doesn't keep guns away from abusers if their victims drop the charges (which happens all too often, because of the complex relationships victims have with their abusers, and their own feelings of guilt and dependence), or if the charges are pled out to a lower charge.

Second, it's easy for abusers to fall through the cracks. Kelley's conviction for assaulting his wife and stepson didn’t prevent him from purchasing a gun because the charges were handled in military court and the Air Force failed to enter them into the National Criminal Information Center database. "The failure to relay the information prevented the entry of his conviction into the federal database that must be checked before someone is able to purchase a firearm," CNN explained. "Had his information been in the database, it should have prevented gun sales to Kelley."

It's telling that Kelley's crimes were never entered into the database, and that he only got a one-year sentence for the extreme violence he imposed on his wife and her son. That violence wasn’t taken seriously, like it so often isn’t. Domestic violence is treated as a "women’s issue," a private family matter, a series of unfortunate incidents that society can't do much about. But if we viewed violence against women as the serious, egregious offense that it is, society as a whole would benefit immensely. One of those many benefits might even be helping to put an end to mass shootings.