Mass Shooters & Domestic Violence Are Too Often Linked & It's Time To Talk About It
On Sunday, at least 26 people were murdered in a small Texas town when a lone gunman opened fire in a local church. Though it's unclear why the 26-year-old suspect targeted the church outside his hometown, he shares one commonality with other recent mass shooters: The Texas suspect had been accused of domestic violence.
As details about the suspect's past continue to emerge, The New York Times has reported that the Texas native previously served on a New Mexico Air Force base, but had been discharged in 2014 after being court-martialed in 2012 based on charges that he allegedly assaulted his wife and child. His mother-in-law also attended the church in question.
Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), tells Bustle that it's imperative that we examine the link between domestic violence and gun violence: "These mass murders have demonstrated that," she says.
Although President Trump said at a press conference Sunday the Texas tragedy was a "mental health problem," not a "guns situation," the suspect's background highlights two aspects of gun violence that need attention — there is a statistical link between domestic violence and mass shootings, and current gun control measures don't prevent those accused (sometimes even convicted) from buying a firearm. Because anyone dishonorably discharged from the military is prohibited from owning a gun, Sunday's suspect shouldn't have legally been allowed to purchase the semi-automatic rifle he used to take dozens of lives.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety's analysis of FBI data on mass shootings from 2009 to 2016, 54 percent were related to domestic or family violence. In these cases, the suspect shot at least one relative or current or former partner.
However, this statistic doesn't account for mass shooters with a history of alleged domestic violence who opened fire on strangers. For example, the 66-year-old suspect who shot House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in June was previously arrested for hitting a woman and aiming a shotgun at her boyfriend, The Daily Beast reported. A police report also claimed he had been "observed throwing" his foster daughter around the room during the same incident. All charges were later dropped.
The Pulse nightclub shooter who took 49 lives last year reportedly beat his ex-wife. They divorced four months after the wedding, but he was ultimately never convicted for domestic violence. Similarly, the man who shot nine people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood was accused of abuse by two ex-wives. In 1992, he was arrested on charges of sexual violence and rape, The Washington Post reported, but he was not convicted.
None of these attacks directly stemmed from domestic violence, but each shooter had an alleged history of violence toward women.
Criminology experts point out that a correlation is not proof of causation — after all, the majority of domestic abusers don't carry out mass shootings. Dr. Steve Dubovsky, a psychiatry professor at University at Buffalo and an expert on trauma, tells Bustle that although most mass murderers don't have a history of domestic violence, people who commit violent crimes often have a violent past.
"Someone who's violent in one area is more likely to be violent in another area," Dr. Dubovsky says.
The Supreme Court upheld a federal law in 2016 prohibiting anyone convicted of a domestic-violence misdemeanor from owning a gun. However, the fact that these mass shooters were never convicted of domestic abuse meant that they could legally purchase firearms.
Banning anyone accused of domestic violence from owning a gun would go against America's basic legal doctrine that someone is innocent until proven guilty. But because so few domestic abuse cases result in a conviction, many people with a history of violence have easy access to dangerous weapons. Only about a quarter of physical assaults against women are reported to the police, inevitably meaning even less lead to convictions. The majority of victims who don't report abuse believe the police either wouldn't or couldn't do anything, the 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey says. The same survey explains that most victims don't consider the justice system "an appropriate vehicle for resolving conflicts with intimates."
In order for current laws to keep guns away from domestic abusers, women have to feel safe coming forward about the violence they experience. Glenn believes there needs to be more training and education for law enforcement and those who interact with accused abusers, so that they're equipped to ask: What are the potential risks when that person has access to guns?
"Without training and understanding," she tells Bustle, "someone like [the Texas suspect] will slip through the cracks and cause greater harm, and not just to the victim, but to whole community and the nation."
To protect oneself against future shootings, the NRA often calls for more more guns — despite the fact that a Stanford law professor's analysis found higher rates of violence in states with right-to-carry laws. The pro-gun group takes the same stance on domestic violence, and has recently pushed for bills allowing in Indiana and Tennessee allowing survivors to carry handguns without a license. (The NRA did not immediately return Bustle's request for comment.)
But even those with a domestic violence conviction on their record are able to circumvent the system and obtain a gun. A law enforcement official told CNN the 26-year-old bought the rifle used Sunday at an Academy Sports & Outdoors store in San Antonio last year. He filled out federal background check paperwork, but didn't reveal that he had a disqualifying criminal history. As The Guardian's Lois Beckett notes, it's possible the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) missed his application because he was convicted in military court, and the military made an error in filing his discharge records.
And if the Texas shooter hadn't bought his rifle from a licensed dealer, he wouldn't have even needed to fill out background paperwork, as Texas isn't one of the nine states with universal background checks.
"There's a lack of uniform enforcement," Glenn says. "It's one thing to say [to domestic abusers], 'You have to give up your guns.' It's a whole other thing to say, 'Not only do you have to give up your guns, but we're going to enforce that you give up your guns and remove access from you.'"
In order to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, the nation will need to see reform both in how law enforcement handles domestic abuse allegations and how gun control laws are enforced. People with histories of violence will continue to easily purchase guns until real barriers are put in their way.