A person who has abused animals is five times more likely to commit violence against people, according to decades-old research. That stark correlation suggests policy opportunities for violence prevention that deserve to be more fully explored.
For instance, some individuals who have been convicted of animal cruelty are allowed to obtain a gun permit in some states, despite a federal law that prohibits those with a felony conviction from owning a firearm. That’s because some states treat some types of animal abuse as a lesser offense, charging only the most egregious incidents as felonies (like dog fighting or cock fighting).
A bill introduced by US Representative Katherine Clark on Capitol Hill would add misdemeanor convictions of animal cruelty in the federal gun ownership ban. It’s a common-sense measure that Congress should embrace.
“Much like the way domestic violence used to be thought of, violence against animals has historically been considered a private matter,” said Clark. “Those are your animals and you’re sort of allowed to do what you want in your property. But the research around the direct link between mass gun violence and a history of animal abuse has evolved and become more compelling.”
Indeed, scientists have been studying animal abuse as a predictor of future mass violence since the 1960s. A 2013 study, coauthored by Northeastern University professor Arnold Arluke, found that about 40 percent of school shooters from 1988 to 2012 committed a particular type of abuse: flagrant, “up-close and personal” violence against animals, like “strangling, bludgeoning, burning, or mutilating” them.
Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who killed 17 people at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., with an AR-15 rifle, repeatedly abused animals. He reportedly shot chickens and squirrels with a pellet gun. He also boasted of killing toads to the point of noting that the toads would run away when they saw him because “I killed a lot of them.” Devin Kelley, the gunman who killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last year, had been previously charged with a misdemeanor after beating his malnourished husky with his fists and then throwing him onto the ground.
Until two years ago, the FBI didn’t formally track animal abuse crimes. Federal authorities used to lump all crimes involving animals into one generic category. Now the FBI is gathering detailed data on “gross neglect, torture, organized abuse, and sexual abuse” involving animals.
As more sophisticated data become available, analysis of cruelty to animals will further inform our understanding of future patterns of violence — for instance, pet abuse and domestic violence often go together. For now, Congress should act on the clear connections between animal violence and human violence to ensure guns stay out of the hands of animal abusers.