Not every domestic abuser becomes a mass shooter. Yet a majority of mass shooters have histories of domestic violence.
Before Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock was known to publicly berate his girlfriend. Before Orlando, Omar Mateen reportedly beat his first wife. And before Devin Kelley murdered 26 people last Sunday at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, he served a year in jail for assaulting his wife and fracturing his infant stepson’s skull.
“When something like this happens, many of us in the field now say to ourselves, ‘Where is the domestic violence’?” said Debra Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., a social justice advocacy coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence. “It’s not to say every batterer will be a mass shooter, but what we’re seeing is many mass shooters have some connection to or have witnessed violence, most likely domestic violence, or are abusers themselves.”
Law enforcement authorities investigating this latest church shooting have called it “a domestic situation.” Kelley, they say, sent “threatening texts” to his mother-in-law, who had attended services at the small Baptist church, but was not there last Sunday.
That another man with a history of family violence has become a mass murderer should surprise no one. Nationwide, domestic and family killings constitute the majority of mass murders. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, domestic violence accounted for 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016. High casualty attacks, such as in Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, garner the biggest headlines. Yet it’s the murders that rarely get national attention — such as the man in Houston who killed his ex-girlfriend, her six children, and husband, in 2015 — that account for most of the hundreds of mass murders each year.
It goes beyond shooters. Four years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was arrested for domestic assault and battery. More recently, James Fields Jr., charged with killing Heather Heyer when he rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a racist rally in Charlottesville, Va., was familiar to police for abusing his wheelchair-bound mother.
Nor is this new. More than 50 years ago, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother before murdering more than a dozen people at the University of Texas at Austin. He was also raised in an abusive home.
This should be reason enough for lawmakers to enact policies to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people. But don’t count on it. Republican legislators are too busy doling out “thoughts and prayers” like stale Halloween candy. President Trump, who only mentions mental illness to avoid talking about gun control after mass shootings, has ruled out “extreme vetting” for potential gun owners. Of course, that phrase was one of the first things out of his mouth when an Uzbek immigrant rammed a truck into cyclists, killing eight, last week in New York.
Both domestic abusers and mass killers are driven by a ferocious need to exert power and control through violence. The worst of these men — and mass killers are overwhelming men — seek domination through force, intimidation and, ultimately, murder. And they are buoyed by “a society that upholds a culture where misogyny is socially accepted, and ranges from domestic homicide to sexual harassment,” Robbin said.
“If we look at these issues as a continuum rather than as isolated, segregated forms of abuse,” she said, “we can see that we aren’t having a national conversation about gender-based violence and how to really get underneath and prevent it.”
Like the easy access to powerful firearms, domestic violence is a crisis of national proportions. From the Vegas Strip to rural Texas, and every point beyond and between, the unchecked anger that fuels domestic violence also feeds a culture of mass shootings as terrifying as they now are common, and seemingly unstoppable.