The Link Between Domestic Violence and Mass Shootings

"The number-one predictor of violent crime is past violence."
November 7, 2017, 11:30pm
Scott Olson/Getty Images

According to President Donald Trump, Sunday's mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, Texas, wasn't "a guns situation," but rather "a mental health problem at the highest level."

The idea that guns have nothing to do with a mass shooting—especially one where 26 people, including young children and a pregnant woman, suffered fatal wounds in a matter of moments—doesn't pass the laugh test.

But more crucially, Trump is also wrong about mental health. And he's not alone. Whether they support or oppose gun control, most public officials responding to a mass shooting will at some point talk about how we need to reform our mental health care system or make it harder for mentally ill people to get guns. Yet the actual evidence on mental health and violence shows that this focus is wrong-headed.

"The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent," American Psychological Association president Antonio Puente explained in a statement. "A complex combination of risk factors, including a history of domestic violence, violent misdemeanor crimes, and substance use disorders, increases the likelihood of people using a firearm against themselves or others. Firearm prohibitions for these high-risk groups have been shown to reduce gun violence."

Domestic violence was especially relevant in the case of the Texas gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley. Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his first wife and his stepson; Kelley repeatedly hit, kicked, and choked the woman and fractured the child's skull. He served 12 months' confinement and received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force. News broke Tuesday that Kelley had escaped from a mental health facility in June 2012 after he was caught sneaking guns onto his Air Force base and making death threats against his military superiors. But, again, the key element here is violence and violent threats, not mental health. Kelley was also investigated for rape and sexual assault in 2013 and charged with cruelty to animals in 2014.

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According to local authorities, a "domestic situation" with his mother-in-law from his second marriage may have motivated Kelley to open fire at the church; he'd sent her "threatening texts." Kelley's mother-in-law was a member, but neither she nor Kelley's estranged second wife were in attendance at the church during the shooting Sunday morning—though his grandmother-in-law was shot and killed, according to friends of the woman.

This situation calls to mind another recent mass shooting in Texas: less than two months ago in suburban Plano, a gunman who was targeting his estranged wife killed her and seven other people before himself being killed by police.

It's not just a Texas thing, though. Mass shooters who've been accused of domestic violence include the Pulse nightclub shooter in Orlando, the Planned Parenthood shooter in Colorado, the man who shot Congressman Steve Scalise and other lawmakers at baseball practice, the Fort Lauderdale airport shooter, the man who shot up a screening of an Amy Schumer movie in Louisiana, and the man who killed his wife and her 8-year-old special needs student in a San Bernardino elementary school. While he didn't use a gun, one of the Boston Marathon bombers faced a domestic violence arrest in 2009. Even Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter whose motives remain a mystery, was known to verbally abuse his girlfriend in public. The list goes on, and it goes back decades, as Jennifer Mascia reported for The Trace in 2015.

It's clear that guns kill people, and people with guns kill people. The key question for policymakers is: which people should we ban from purchasing or possessing a gun? It's not people diagnosed with mental illness; rather, it's people who already have a track record of committing violence against others, if this pattern holds true. "The number-one predictor of violent crime is past violence," says April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University who studies the role of firearms in intimate partner violence and homicide.

Domestic violence is an especially bright and long-lasting red flag, since many victims experience years of abuse and call the police multiple times before finally seeking a restraining order. We don't have much data on the specific connection between domestic abusers and mass shooters, Zeoli says, but research does indicate that domestic abusers often commit other violent or nonviolent crimes in addition to domestic abuse. We also know that domestic violence against a female partner often precedes one partner killing the other, Zeoli says, and that having a gun in the house means a fivefold increase in the risk of intimate partner homicide.

Taking more guns away from domestic abusers could also directly prevent some mass shooting deaths. Research by Everytown for Gun Safety looked at mass shootings between January 2009 and December 2016; the group defines the term as an incident where four or more people are killed with a gun, not including the shooter. They found that, in 54 percent of cases, the perpetrator killed an intimate partner or family member, and that 63 percent of mass shootings happened inside the home.

We do already have a patchwork of state and federal laws that bar convicted domestic abusers from purchasing or possessing guns, Zeoli says. Federal law requires background checks for all sales at licensed gun dealers; background checks would show domestic violence convictions that would halt the sale. But 31 states still allow people to buy firearms at gun shows without a background check, which is known as the gun show loophole. Additionally, federal law doesn't require convicted abusers to surrender existing guns and doesn't specify how to recover the weapons, so it's left to the states to figure out. Some state laws are stronger than others— thirteen states have no laws requiring law enforcement to remove guns from an abuser—but many jurisdictions lack the coordination or resources they need to carry out the laws that already exist.

The Air Force admitted Monday that under federal law, Kelley should have been prohibited from legally purchasing a firearm as a result of his court-martial domestic violence conviction. But for some reason, his information wasn't entered into the National Criminal Information Center database like it should have been. Kelley was able to purchase four guns—an assault rifle and three other guns—in the past four years. He passed a background check in 2016 when he purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle that he allegedly used in Sunday's attack. The Air Force says it will investigate why that happened—but if the culprit turns out to be poor communication or confusion over procedures, it will be more the norm than the exception when it comes to enforcing gun laws.

Improving background checks and making them universal is one key step to get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, Zeoli says. Anyone convicted of a felony can't own or buy a gun under federal law, and for perpetrators of domestic violence, getting a misdemeanor conviction or a full restraining order also counts. But misdemeanor domestic violence convictions "are a particularly tricky thing in the background check system," Zeoli says. A domestic abuser may be convicted of misdemeanor "assault," for instance—but since state laws on assault and domestic violence are inconsistent, the domestic-violence context might not make it into the conviction record, and wouldn't keep the abuser from getting a gun as federal law theoretically requires.

It's also much easier to ban abusers from purchasing new guns than to figure out if an abuser already owns a gun that needs to be taken away, and sometimes this more difficult work just doesn't get done. "Not all jurisdictions have figured out how to implement and enforce these laws yet," Zeoli says. "We need to make strides in those areas."

Federal law falls short in other ways. It only covers restraining orders that have had a full court hearing, not the temporary restraining orders that victims can ask for in an emergency. But it's after receiving that first temporary restraining order—the first sign that their victim might actually leave them—that some abusers can be at their most dangerous, Zeoli says.

Under federal law, a misdemeanor conviction or restraining order also doesn't count as "domestic violence" for intimate partners who aren't married and don't live together, or for family members other than children. (This is known as the "boyfriend loophole.") So if, for instance, Kelley's mother-in-law was worried about his potential for violence after allegedly receiving his threatening texts, she couldn't necessarily have gotten his guns taken away.

Kelley's mother-in-law may have had little legal recourse in Texas, but a few states are changing that status quo. California, Connecticut, Washington, and Indiana already have what's called a "gun violence restraining order"—which allows family members, as well as intimate partners, to petition the courts to temporarily remove guns from someone they believe may be dangerous.

"A gun violence restraining order seems like a really great idea," Zeoli says. It builds on the success of domestic violence restraining orders, which have reduced intimate-partner homicides by putting court-mandated distance between abusers and victims. But because you don't have to be an intimate partner to request a gun violence restraining order, "[it] opens it up to being applied to many more people who might be a danger to the public," Zeoli says.

It seems clear that if society got better at supporting victims of violence, it would also get better at proactively identifying people who've been violent in the past who may need to be watched more closely when it comes to gun sales. And if politicians didn't use mental health as a shield to deflect larger questions about gun control—for instance, why are assault rifles still legal?**—**maybe we could finally have a more productive dialogue about changing our gun laws.

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