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Looking at Mass Shootings Through a Domestic Violence Lens – posted 11/12/2017

November 12, 2017 2 comments

It is hard to keep up with all the mass shootings. There have been so many of them and they happen with such depressing regularity.

Everytown Research, an organization devoted to understanding and reducing gun violence, says that between 2009 and 2016, 156 mass shootings  occurred in the United States. Everytown defines mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people, not including the shooter, were shot and killed.

While we have been conditioned to look first for an ISIS or Al Qaeda link, the majority of mass shootings, 54%, are connected to domestic violence. The most common scenario is a toxically angry man who goes off because he has lost control over his wife or girl friend. These enraged men act out with extreme violence when the women in their lives do not submit to them.

Underlying the domestic violence is an ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against women which still pervades our culture. The devaluation of women and the idea that men are superior and have the right to control and dominate them remains rampant in American society. While there are many men who devalue women but never commit violent acts, the role of prejudice against women and misogyny in American society is insufficiently understood and addressed.

In the U.S., guns are an omnipresent tool used to intimidate women. Everytown writes that 4.5 million women have been threatened by an intimate partner with a gun. While that number seemed high to me, even lower estimates boggle the mind. Research suggests that the presence of guns in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood that a woman will be shot and murdered by a fivefold factor. This is a dark side of gun culture that we don’t talk about.

The mass shooting in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church on November 5 in which 25 people were murdered and 20 more injured is the latest example of the domestic violence connection.  Devin Kelley had a history of hitting, kicking, and choking his wife. He had threatened her many times with loaded and unloaded guns.

In 2012, the Air Force had court-martialed Kelley for an assault on his wife and his young stepson. As part of a plea deal, Kelley admitted to hitting the infant on the head and body “with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm”. Kelley fractured the child’s skull and caused internal bleeding.

Kelley served 12 months in a military prison and he received a bad conduct discharge.

In 2013, after moving to Colorado, police charged Kelley with misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Numerous witnesses saw him beat a dog with his fists. He tackled the dog, held it down with his knees and punched it while the dog yelped. Kelley then picked up the dog by the neck, threw it down and dragged it to his camper. When the police investigated, they found the dog was undernourished.

In 2014, after his divorce, police received a report of abuse against Kelley’s new girl friend. She had sent a text to a friend that “her boyfriend was abusing her”. When the police arrived they were told by people at the house that there was no problem. The police did not arrest Kelley in that incident. Two months later, Kelley married that girl friend.

Since the church shooting, police have reported that Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law who frequently attended at that church. The police also found social media posts from Kelley that suggested a fascination with mass shootings.

Kelley would have been prohibited from buying or owning any firearms if the Air Force had reported Kelley’s conviction into a background check system. He went on to buy at least four guns in Colorado and Texas between 2014 and 2017. The police recovered an AR-15-style rifle at the church and two handguns from Kelley’s car.

In our collective societal response to mass shootings like Sutherland Springs, we seem to turn off our critical faculties, as if we are infected by an intellectual paralysis. In the face of successive mass shootings and decades of government inaction, we have been rendered mute and powerless.

We need to overcome the idea that nothing can be done to stop gun violence.

For starters, we need a much-improved, universal, national background check system that does not allow loopholes. Even the NRA admits that seven million records are missing from the system. This includes a large number of people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Devin Kelley was just one of many who have evaded the background check system.

Whether a person buys at a licensed gun dealer, a gun show, or in a private sale, there must be a background check. There is a body of persuasive public health evidence showing that closing the unlicensed gun loophole will save many lives.

It remains far too easy for domestic violence abusers, convicted felons, the seriously mentally ill and even people on terrorist watch lists to obtain firearms. Now, in most states, gun purchasers can avoid background checks by buying from unlicensed sellers online. That is wrong.

According to Everytown, in 42% of mass shootings, the shooter had exhibited warning signs prior to the shooting. The warning signs were suicidal ideation, homicidal threats or other erratic behaviors. There were no shortage of red flags around Devin Kelley but family, acquaintances, and law enforcement missed the warning signs.

Rather than a simple mental health diagnosis, I think we need to look harder at the behavioral risk of dangerousness. It is extremely hard to predict how a person will act but a history of violent behavior is a better predictor of future violence than mental illness.

Possibly we should reform our laws around restraining orders. California, Oregon and Washington have passed Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Under these laws, family members and law enforcement can petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals in crisis, especially those at a dangerously-elevated risk of suicide.

Additionally,  we should be advocating for renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. These are weapons designed to maximize lethality in military combat and should not be available to civilians. The AR-15 was the weapon of choice for mass shooters in Aurora, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and Sutherland Springs.

The regulation  of assault weapons, high capacity magazines and bump stocks is not an infringement on Second Amendment rights. No constitutional right is absolute and all are subject to reasonable regulation. Assault weapons have proven to be a major threat to public health and safety in this nation.

The fact that the gun lobby objects strenuously to every effort to regulate the industry as heading down some slippery slope shows evidence of extreme  paranoia more than rational thought. As with any legislative reform,  every  proposed gun control measure should be evaluated on the merits.

Seeing mass shootings as a product of a small number of mentally deranged individuals misses the context of how women are treated in American society and how they become victims of male violence. The mass shootings are not inevitable events. If we had the political will as a society to address how women are devalued and discriminated against, we could greatly reduce the frequency of tragedies like Sutherland Springs where the link between domestic violence and mass shootings is readily apparent.

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