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Why we can't ignore the connection between gun violence and domestic violence

At Least 50 Dead In Mass Shooting At Gay Nightclub In Orlando Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After Omar Mateen was identified as the Orlando gunman who carried out the worst mass shooting and most deadly anti-LGBTQ hate crime in modern US history, his ex-wife told the media that Mateen had violently abused her during her brief marriage to him in 2009.

Sitora Yusufiy said that her family had to "literally rescue" her from Mateen after just four months of marriage, during which he had beaten her and kept her "hostage." Mateen had a short, violent temper, Yusufiy said, and was "mentally unstable and mentally ill," possibly with bipolar disorder.

Many news reports have cited Mateen's father, who said Mateen was very upset recently at the sight of two men kissing. But according to Mateen's former co-worker Daniel Gilroy, he wasn't just homophobic — he was also incredibly misogynistic and racist, and had a temper that was "scary in a concerning way."

"He did not like women at all," Gilroy told NBC News. "He did like women in a sexual way, but he did not respect them."


Every time the US experiences another mass shooting, the conversation tends to turn toward mental illness, and how we should focus more on reforming our mental health care system than firearm restrictions.

But the research on gun violence simply doesn't support this idea. People with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. Only about 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most don’t involve guns. Other risk factors, like being male, being poor or unemployed, and abusing drug or alcohol, are clearer predictors of violent behavior.

One of the best predictors of future violent behavior, researchers say, is past violent behavior. And a crucial warning sign — one too often ignored — is domestic violence against intimate partners and other family members.

These innocent victims are the "canaries in the coal mine for understanding public terror," as feminist writer Soraya Chemaly put it for Rolling Stone.

"Men who commit violence rehearse and perfect it against their families first," wrote Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet in a New York Times op-ed in February. "Women and children are target practice, and the home is the training ground for these men’s later actions."

Most "mass shootings" are actually domestic violence incidents

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Mass shootings are so scary because they seem so unpredictable. They can happen anywhere and to anyone, and they are often carried out by men who have no criminal history that could have prevented them from buying a gun in the first place.

But in fact, the majority of what could be called "mass shootings" are all too predictable — and many victims are the women and children who find themselves entangled in the lives of violently abusive men.

More than half of mass shootings (defined as a shooting in which at least four people are killed with a gun) involve a current or former intimate partner or a family member. Most of the victims of those shootings, 81 percent, are women or children. And 70 percent of all mass shootings happen inside the home, not out in public. These shootings make the local news, but they are both so private and so sadly routine that they rarely get the massive national attention that rarer public shootings do.

Still, there’s also a strong connection between domestic violence and what the media and public imagination see as "mass shootings." Mateen is far from the only high-profile mass shooter who has a history of alleged domestic abuse, as Jennifer Mascia reported for The Trace in December.

There was Robert Lewis Dear, the alleged Planned Parenthood shooter in Colorado Springs, who was never convicted of a sex crime but who was accused of sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking by three different women, including his then-wife. There was John Houser, who killed two and injured nine in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, whose wife and daughter filed an order of protection against him for domestic violence. There was James Huberty, who killed 21 people at a California McDonald’s in 1984 and whose wife reported him to police for giving her a "messed up" jaw. The list goes on.

"We know that violence is the best predictor of future violence," said Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who researches the connection between gun violence and domestic violence. "If someone has demonstrated past violent behavior, it's probably the best indicator we have of the risk of being violent in the future."

Domestic violence usually follows a pattern, and guns make it much more dangerous

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Domestic violence in particular is extremely predictable. It’s common for police to be called multiple times, sometimes dozens, for domestic violence incidents before a woman is ultimately murdered by her abuser. And a substantial body of research shows that victims of domestic violence, particularly women, are put at much greater risk when a gun is involved.

Abused women are five times more likely to be murdered if their partner owns a gun, and the risk of death from a violent assault by a family member or intimate partner is 12 times higher if a firearm is involved.

From 1998 to 2008, an astonishing 40 percent of female homicide victims were killed by either a former or current intimate partner, and half of those murders were committed with guns. Nearly two-thirds of the women killed by guns in 2011 were killed by an intimate partner.

But it can be difficult to keep guns away from domestic abusers

Omar Mateen

Omar Mateen

Despite the long trail of red flags that law enforcement agencies often get that show an abuser is a problem, they can’t always protect domestic violence victims from the additional danger of gun violence.

Only about half of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police in the first place, and only some police departments take the kinds of active steps that actually inspire victims to seek further help — like screening victims in the field for domestic violence risk factors and telling them their results, and actually putting them on the phone with a crisis center instead of just handing them the number.

If a victim does end up going to a judge to seek a temporary restraining order against their abuser, Frattaroli said, they can typically get one. But actually getting to that stage of things can be difficult, she said: "While the infrastructure [to help victims] is in place, it requires someone who's been victimized, often over a long period of time, to stand up and do something that's really hard, which is to go to a courthouse — and many of us have not been part of the criminal justice system — to initiate this process in a public way, for a relationship that may have been very private up to this point."

That temporary "ex parte" order doesn’t last long; a week or a month, depending on the state. Then the court has to hear from the accused abuser to decide whether to expand the temporary order.

The danger to victims is greatest after the first temporary order is sought. That’s when their abuser first finds out that their victim took legal action against them, and when they are most likely to violently retaliate against the victim.

But federal law doesn't do anything to restrict gun ownership for abusers until after that initial dangerous period. If and when the temporary order is extended and a full restraining order is issued, that's when federal law kicks in and prohibits an abuser from purchasing or possessing a gun. (That's the case under amendments to the Gun Control Act, passed in 1994 and 1996, which also prohibit guns for anyone who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor rather than just a felony. A pending Supreme Court case could potentially strike down the misdemeanor provision, though.)

Federal law has other limitations. Non-married partners who don’t live together are not protected, nor does it protect family members other than children. The narrow definition of "intimate partner," and the omission of temporary restraining orders, are both serious policy oversights that needs to be addressed, Frattaroli said.

Many states have various laws that offer stronger protections, which increases the chance that a violent abuser will have his guns taken away or be prevented from buying new ones. Some states (not including Florida) authorize, or even require, law enforcement officers to remove any guns at the scene of a domestic violence incident.

But this means that not every victim in every state has the same protection. And really the biggest problem of all, Frattaroli said, is actually carrying out the laws once they are passed.

Research shows that when states ban someone who is subject to a domestic violence restraining order from buying new guns, it’s associated with a 19 percent drop in domestic homicides overall, and 25 percent fewer domestic homicides with firearms.

But research doesn’t show the same impact from laws that forbid the accused abuser from possessing guns — in other words, that allow the guns he already owns to be at least temporarily seized — after a temporary restraining order is issued. The same is true for laws about misdemeanor domestic violence convictions.

The likely reason for this, Frattaroli said, is that the laws about possession and misdemeanor convictions just aren't being carried out consistently. It takes a lot of action from law enforcement to actually take away someone’s gun after he has been served with a domestic violence restraining order.

First, police officers have to know that he has a gun in the first place — and data on that can be spotty because not every state has a gun registry or gun sale database, and not all of those databases are complete. Then an order has to be served, which requires actually finding the offender. And then law enforcement actually has to go about seizing the firearm.

Plus, for new gun purchases, background checks still aren’t universal. So it’s very possible for someone who is subject to a domestic violence restraining order — temporary or otherwise — to get a gun even if he isn’t legally supposed to.

"There are some places that are doing some great work to implement and enforce these laws," Frattaroli said. "But my sense is, it's not routine, it's not commonplace, it's not what is happening across the country on systematic scale."

There are some reforms that could help

Frattaroli and her colleague April Zeoli laid out a list of policy recommendations in the book Reducing Gun Violence in America.

Along with the suggestions already mentioned (expanding the federal definition of "intimate partners" and including temporary restraining orders in gun prohibitions), Zeoli and Frattaroli recommend:

  • Requiring all gun buyers to undergo background checks.
  • Giving states incentives to create gun registries, and to automatically update their background check systems as new domestic violence restraining orders and misdemeanor convictions come in.
  • Establishing a federal training program to help state and local law enforcement agencies do a better job of implementing and enforcing the laws that already exist.

Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion Frattaroli mentioned, though, is something called a gun violence restraining order. California became the first state to pass a law like this in 2014.

Much like a domestic violence restraining order, a gun violence restraining order gives a concrete, emergency legal step for victims or concerned family members to take if they know that someone close to them is dangerous. They can petition the court to prohibit the person from buying or possessing a gun for a defined period of time; a year for instance.

The basic idea behind this policy is that family members and friends of an abuser, as well as law enforcement officers who answer their distress calls, are on the front lines of abuse. They are the most likely to know if a person has a pattern of violent behavior, and they are most likely to suffer from it. Yet unless someone has committed a crime or can be involuntarily committed to a mental institution, there’s not much anyone can legally do to keep guns out of his hands.

Omar Mateen was known to have a violent temper by more than one person in his life. The parents of Jared Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed 10 people in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, knew he was violent and took away his shotgun, but couldn’t do anything more unless he had committed a crime or unless they had decided to try to have him involuntarily committed to a mental institution. The family of Elliot Rodger, who went on a misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014, was similarly worried about his threatening behaviors and similarly powerless to do much about it.

Of course, not all "mass shooters," as the media popularly imagines them, have a previous history of domestic violence, or of violent and erratic behavior that’s bad enough to make family members worried. But many of them do. And, again, most "mass shootings" aren't how we imagine them — they’re not school shootings or dance-floor massacres. They’re relatively private acts of horror, preceded by red flag after red flag of abusive and violent behavior.

We can’t predict who will become a mass shooter, nor can we save every potential victim of domestic violence. But it would be an unforced error not to do all we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who are known to be violent — and it’s a lot easier to predict violent behavior in general than the specific decision to commit a mass shooting.