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The link between domestic violence and mass shootings, explained by a gun policy expert

Devin Patrick Kelley had a history of domestic violence. So did Omar Mateen and many, many others. What’s going on?

Pastor Frank Pomeroy hugs his wife Sherri after addressing the media near his First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on November 6.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The scene was all too familiar. A group of innocent people targeted, a lone man with a gun, a violent outburst.

During a Sunday morning service at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on a group of church-goers, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others.

One characteristic in particular links Kelley to a long line of mass shooters before him: a history of domestic violence. In 2012, Kelley was discharged from the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for assaulting his wife and child, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

Kelley fits a pattern. In June, James T. Hodgkinson fired 50 rounds of shots from a military rifle and handgun at a group of GOP leaders at a congressional practice session in Alexandria, Virginia. He had been arrested in 2006 for domestic battery and discharge of a weapon after reportedly punching his daughter’s friend and shooting at her boyfriend. The charges were dropped, but he later lost custody of his daughter. Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, allegedly beat his wife. Robert Lewis Dear, who shot up a Planned Parenthood in 2015, was accused of physical abuse by two ex-wives.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, a majority of mass shooting victims from 2009 to 2015 were an intimate partner, ex-partner, or other family member of the shooter. And research from Boston University shows that in states with more gun owners, there are more homicides — and women are more likely to be the ones killed.

To understand the link between mass shootings and domestic violence, I spoke with Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York Cortland and the author of several books on gun policy, including The Politics of Gun Control. Spitzer is a frequent commentator on issues related to gun control and mass shootings.

This conversation is edited and condensed for clarity.

Hope Reese

You have written a lot on the history of the [National Rifle Association] and the politics of gun control. How does domestic violence — specifically, violence against women — play into this history?

Robert Spitzer

It's interesting to look at the connection between what's generally labeled gun culture and male/female attitudes. Sociologists and writers go to gun shows and talk to people there about their interest in guns, their affinity to guns. And oftentimes, the people being interviewed say, "Please don't use my name because I'm divorced from my wife and she thinks I'm hiding income," or they raise very specific issues about marital troubles or male/female troubles and express resentment over the idea that the estranged spouse might try to get more financial support, which seems to be a rather odd sort of thing.

Joan Burbick, who wrote Gun Show Nation, saw that marital problems very much came to the fore in her interviews with men at gun shows, and this was going back 10 years. It's not just a proclivity to violence, but it's closely related to traditional notions of male behavior — and by that, I mean macho behavior. One of the arguments about gun ownership is that men, to some degree, are expressing a hypermasculinity, and that is very much married to what you might call traditional attitudes about marriage, about male/female relations. Which include subjugation of the woman, a woman's place is in the home, that sort of thing.

Of course, in the modern era, those attitudes rarely prevail. There aren't that many women who would meekly accept this idea that the woman should stay in the home, should not argue with the man — this whole bundle of old attitudes.

In the gun culture, there is also an extolling of what might be identified as traditional male values of male dominance, of the man properly expressing the use of force.

Hope Reese

As women have gained more rights, have mass shootings or domestic violence incidents increased?

Robert Spitzer

Boy, that's a very good question and I don't think anybody has marshaled real evidence to support that proposition. Anecdotally, and even in recent news articles, evidence suggests that men go after the women in their lives because the women argued with them, disagreed with them. Perhaps argued as to whether they should be owning guns at all, things like that. It's often the woman who calls the police, who says, ”My husband or my boyfriend is threatening me, and he owns guns and he's threatened me with a gun.”

Hope Reese

Are you seeing parallels between the motivations of a mass shooter and the motivations of somebody who's committing domestic violence?

Robert Spitzer

Well, domestic violence incidents often become mass shooting incidents.

That's a key — the political events receive more attention. The Orlando shooting, the ballpark shooting last week, because of the political overtones. The more, I hate to say, "routine shootings," but the more numerous shootings that spiral out of control often begin with a domestic dispute. A man shoots his estranged wife and three children and then kills himself. I mean, those kinds of things happen a lot, and constitute a significant proportion of the total of mass shootings.

Hope Reese

Is a history of domestic violence the greatest common characteristic among mass shooters, beyond political motivations or other variables?

Robert Spitzer

Statistically, yes. They simply don't receive the same degree of attention.

When you look at the 11,000 or 12,000 murders last year, what proportion of them involved people who knew each other? In a majority of murders, the perpetrator and the victim knew each other. They were relatives, neighbors, friends. Within the subset of the perpetrator knowing the victim, how many of them were domestic-related? I'll hazard a guess that the majority of them are.

[Author’s note: Spitzer is correct: according to Angela Stroud, author of Good Guys With Guns, "between 1980 and 2008, 41.5 percent of murdered women were killed by a current or former husband or boyfriend, 30 percent were killed by an acquaintance, and 16.7 percent were killed by a family member."]

Tying personal relationships not only to mass shooting but to murder generally, and to interpersonal violence, it plays a huge role.

Hope Reese

What is the relationship between gun laws and gun ownership?

Robert Spitzer

Those two things themselves are correlated. So a state like Alaska or Montana has very high gun ownership rate on a per capita basis. Also extremely lax gun laws. And you indeed find very high homicide rates, and especially very high gun suicide rates. That's the other part of this. The correlation between the prevalence of guns and gun suicide is very significant. Strictness of gun laws is related to that, as well. So obviously there's an interaction effect there, too.

If you're a state that has strict gun laws on the books, it's an indication that the gun lobby or gun rights people in that state are not as strong, which also correlates to less gun ownership to begin with. And when you have stricter laws, you can assume it has a discouraging effect on gun ownership. You have to do more things to get your permit, for example.

I went through the process of getting a pistol permit here in New York a couple years ago. It's a lengthy, complicated process. It's not like the 12 states that have now eliminated pistol permitting entirely. If you can legally own a handgun, you don't need a permit, because the state doesn't issue them. So, a lot easier to carry a gun around with you, to own guns. Those things are all correlated, and I don't know that anybody has done the statistical analysis to separate out what impact each factor has — the law, gun ownership rates, crime rates. But there definitely is a correlation.

Hope Reese

States with a higher rate of gun ownership also have more homicides. Not only that — women are disproportionately affected. Research shows that gun ownership rates cause only 1.5 percent of the rise in murders of men but 41 percent of the rise in murders of women. Why are women more likely to be victims of gun violence?

Robert Spitzer

One, when you find greater levels of violence generally, a lot of that's going to be domestic violence or spawned by domestic violence. So you would expect that. The other thing is this notion of traditional male attitudes — that the man rules the roost, that the male ego in a relationship should be handled carefully. There is certainly reason to believe that more traditional attitudes about male/female relationships, which make a greater allowance for men's expression of violence and masculinity, which are often seen as linked, can cultivate violence against women and violence generally.

Hope Reese

What about the argument that if women have access to guns, they can protect themselves from a violent male partner?

Robert Spitzer

Well, the NRA has been playing on that argument for many years. There are women who own guns, obviously, and some for that reason. If you look at the percentage of gun owners who are women across the last 20 years, what you find is that it's basically been level. There have been short-term increases and decreases, but basically, the gun people have failed to persuade more women to get guns. To buy guns, own guns, use guns. There is an intuitive logic, frankly, to the idea that if any segment of society should be getting guns to protect themselves, it probably should be women, because women, on average, are smaller and not as strong physically as the average man.

But when you look at what actually happens, the gun violence that ensues is far more likely to be used against women than in protection of women. Even in cases where the women have training, where they are acquainted with the use of guns. There are cases, obviously, of women who have successfully protected themselves. But there's not a lot of real, hard evidence to support the idea that women are materially benefited by getting a gun to protect themselves.

Hope Reese

Many men who have been charged with domestic violence are still able to purchase or keep a gun. Why is that?

Robert Spitzer

Including, of course, the shooter from last week, who falls into that category.

Hope Reese

Exactly.

Robert Spitzer

One reason is that in a final legal judgment, the ultimate verdict may be appealed. It may be bargained down, so that it's a sufficiently minor offense that they're not barred from getting guns. Secondly, we know that in domestic disputes, the spouse will ultimately decide to drop charges or will not file charges, even though real violence may have occurred. So you have a prosecution problem, where the complainant doesn't want to proceed with the complaint and ergo, no police record. And the general tendency, historically, at least, for police to not treat domestic violence episodes as seriously as other kinds of violence. Police forces have come a long way in that regard, but they've not come far enough to help out a lot of women who have been subject to this kind of violence.

If you don't have that legal trial for a felony, or serious something on the record, like threatening to kill your wife, these individuals often wind up being able to get guns.

Hope Reese

Many cases of domestic abuse or violence go unreported. Does that make it even harder to establish this relationship between domestic violence and mass shootings?

Robert Spitzer

Well, sure it does, precisely because you don't have the hard data. You can count, with great accuracy, the number of murders that occur every year, because when a murder occurs, the police are there. They conduct an investigation and reports are filed, etc. But if no report is filed or if charges are dismissed or withdrawn later on, without a hard paper trail, it's much, much harder to have good evidence about the frequency of these circumstances and therefore, the links to people who commit other kinds of gun violence later.

So it is a problem because of underreporting.

Hope Reese

What about mass shooters? Is there a large enough sample size to draw conclusions?

Robert Spitzer

That's an issue too. First, there's some dispute about what constitutes a mass shooting. How the FBI counts them versus news organizations, things like that. In recent years we've had something like 300 mass shootings. It correlates closely to the number of days in the calendar year. It's on the small end, relatively speaking, so there's a limit to what you can do with the data from those cases.

When you have 10,000 murders a year nationwide, versus, let's say 300 mass murders, given that the mass murders are normally committed by a single individual, that's 300 individuals out of a nation of 325 million people who do something horrendous. So there is a question of being cautious about generalizing about such a tiny number in relation to all crimes, or in relation to the population as a whole.

Hope Reese

Do women commit mass shootings? What could we learn from those outliers?

Robert Spitzer

There was the case in San Bernardino. The husband and wife. So she participated with her husband, but she clearly was an active participant. But there are very, very few. Which is consistent with the notion that most, the vast majority of most violent crime generally, is committed by men. So it really is the province primarily of men, and younger men. Although ... the ballpark shooter last week was 66. Women just don't commit as many violent crimes.

Hope Reese

After either a mass shooting or a domestic violence incident, are there clues that would have given hints about what happened? Are the clues the same for both mass shootings and domestic violence incidents?

Robert Spitzer

There are definitely clues. Here in New York state, if you apply for a pistol permit, one of the things you need to do is give the county sheriff a list, in the application, of four character references. And the police contact those people, and they send them detailed questionnaires, with the most detailed kinds of questions. "Does this person abuse substances, alcohol or other drugs?" "Does the person exhibit any behavior such that you don't think they should be able to own a gun?" And so on. In other words, they're not using the standard, "Did this person break the law?" but, "Is there anything about this person that gives you a whiff, a scent, that maybe they shouldn't have a gun?"

And if you look at a lot of the mass shooters, they gave off abundant signals to their family, to fellow students, to acquaintances, to co-workers. If anybody had asked those people, "Look, is there anything about this person that says to you maybe this person ought not to have a gun?" they would have all said, "Yes, absolutely.”

It was true of [Seung-Hui] Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech; it was true of the guy who shot Gabby Giffords; it was true of the guy who shot up the movie theater in Colorado in 2012.

Had any of those people lived in New York and tried to get a gun legally, there's no way they would have been given legal permission to get a gun.

Contrary to what many people say, the law does make a difference. It is the job of the law to make it tough or impossible for a person who shouldn't have a gun to get a gun. But most states don't do that. There are usually signals of mental health, of rising rage, uncontrollable rage and other things, but in most places, nobody makes that connection. In most states, they're not asking questions of friends, neighbors, co-workers about whether the person should be a gun owner.

And so are there signs? There absolutely are. And could they stop mass shootings? I don't think there's any doubt that they could — at least some of them.

Hope Reese

After every lethal shooting, there's usually a conversation in Congress about enacting tougher laws, but they often fail to pass. What would it really take for this country to enact tougher national gun laws?

Robert Spitzer

We are in a situation where the NRA is thoroughly embedded in the Republican Party. The Republican Party is more conservative than it has been probably ever in its history, and is ever more loyal to kind of archconservative principles, including untrammeled access to guns. So it's not really possible to have a national debate when the leaders of the two elected branches of government don't want to talk about these things at all. Because leaders have an ability to shift the focus of debate.

So we would need to have a very different government in place. One where these issues could at least be discussed. And that's not going to happen in the near future.

I would add that at the state level, there's been a lot happening. And a fair number of states have enacted tougher laws in the last three years or so, three or four years. But more states have enacted laws to weaken their existing gun laws, so there's been a lot happening in the states.

Part of this puzzle is that the gun safety side, or gun control side, needs to continue the things it's been doing: raising more money, spending more money, making it a campaign issue, and building grassroots support to try and counterbalance the longtime dominance of the NRA. That could change things too. But these are long-term trends.

Hope Reese

Are there other variables that incite someone to lash out in a violent way? Political reasons? The 2017 shooting in Virginia was the 153rd mass shooting in just 165 days under Trump, which is outpacing recent rates.

Robert Spitzer

Well, it's kind of a big gray area.

There are many factors that contribute to that. One of the arguments about the Trump era is that Trump's open invocation to violence, exhorting people who came to his rallies to beat up protesters, things like that — some of the rhetoric that he borrowed from the alt-right, even some anti-Semitic rhetoric; he denied it, but you know there are pretty clear links — that that has kind of given a green light to dark forces in the country.

I don't know if it has actually translated into more violence, or if there's other factors at play. But it's at least a question to be raised. Because the tenor and tone of national debate, and of course after the shooting last week, people saying, and members of both parties saying we need to lower the partisan tone, and things like that.

The tone of politics does have an effect, although it's hard to show a link between politicians arguing with each other and some guy in his garage deciding to pull out his gun and go shoot people.

Although, obviously, with the shooter last week, there did indeed seem to be that kind of link.

Hope Reese

What else, besides enacting tougher gun laws, could also help protect women who are victims of violence?

Robert Spitzer

First, it goes back to policing procedures. How police handle such complaints when they first receive them. If the police don't get a complaint, they don't know, they can't do anything. And if you're a subject of domestic violence, where else are you gonna go? Obviously, family or friends, but in terms of it being a public matter. So that's a factor.

In addition, more thorough background checks could well be valuable as a way of getting a better handle on some of these sorts of problems.

The nation is not going to be getting rid of its guns. We have a great many of them. But given that, there are more things that could be done for society to try and make sure that guns, especially the destructive varieties, don't fall into the wrong hands.

You're not going to get everybody — by a long shot. But you would rather have a mass shooter using a bolt-action rifle than an assault rifle with a 30- or 70-bullet magazine, or magazine drum. I mean, that's not hard to figure out.

Hope Reese

You are a member of the NRA.

Robert Spitzer

Yes.

Hope Reese

Does the NRA bear any responsibility for some of the mass shootings or any of these violent acts?

Robert Spitzer

Well, I am a member of the NRA, and I've been a member for over 20 years, and I'm also a member of the Brady Coalition.

In terms of bearing responsibility, I would say that any group that exhorts people to get guns, and to lobby on their behalf, does have a responsibility to talk not just about gun rights but about gun safety, about the responsibility that comes along with having a gun.

Where are the public service announcements on television and radio to exhort gun owners to be sure and lock up your gun? To keep the ammunition, especially if you have children in the house, stored separately? To remember that a gun is a lethal weapon, treat it with respect, make sure you know what you're doing? To say to people, "You guys, you have to be careful if you own a gun"?

So yes, I think they do have a responsibility, and I don't think they do a very good job of fulfilling it, because to them it sounds like an apology. And they just don't want to do that.

Hope Reese

How can you be both a member of the NRA and the Brady Campaign?

Robert Spitzer

Well, I study the issue. It's a way for me to see what the organizations are doing. I also do it because it freaks out my students. They don't get it, or they look at me like, "Huh?"

For that reason alone, it's well worthwhile.

Hope Reese is a staff writer for TechRepublic (a division of CBS Interactive) based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.

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