The gunman responsible for the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, this weekend had a history in school of threatening violence against women, reports CNN. That makes him part of a long, familiar, and sad pattern.
According to multiple students at Connor Betts’s former high school, Betts kept a list of fellow students who he planned to target, CNN says. The boys’ names were on a “hit list,” and the girls’ on a “rape list.” Some of the girls listed were those whom Betts had approached for dates and turned him down, while others say they “didn’t really know” Betts and had no idea why he put them on his list.
“Personally, it freaked me out,” said one woman named on the list. “I started having panic attacks in the school building.”
CNN reports that the school notified the police after discovering the list and expelled Betts, but that he was later allowed to return to school.
“After some time passed, he was back, walking the halls,” a woman whose name appeared on the rape list told the Associated Press. “They didn’t give us any warning that he was returning to school.”
It’s unclear whether Betts was charged with anything after the rape list incident. He was 17 years old at the time and a juvenile; if he faced any criminal charges, those records would have been sealed as soon as he turned 18. Regardless, none of what happened at his school reportedly prevented him from getting his hands on a gun legally.
“There’s nothing in this individual’s record that would have precluded him from getting these weapons,” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl told the AP on Sunday.
The Dayton shooter’s threats toward women are part of a well-worn pattern
Betts’s story is a familiar one. Mass shootings are disconcertingly common in America, and by now a standard part of the aftermath is to learn that the shooter, statistically almost certain to be a man, had a documented history of violence or threatened violence against women, and that said history had absolutely no effect on his ability to get a gun.
The Pulse nightclub shooter was allegedly physically abusive toward his ex-wife, who says her family had to “literally rescue me” from him. Then there was the Chicago Mercy Hospital shooter in 2018, who repeatedly threatened his ex-wife until she took out a restraining order against him. The Thousand Oaks, California, gunman was accused of threatening violence against his elderly mother. The Sutherland Springs shooter had a domestic violence conviction. The gunman who shot Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise in 2017 had been charged with domestic battery.
This is our recurring narrative now: A man is violent toward the women around him, faces few if any consequences, and then goes on being violent and escalating his behavior until multiple people die.
As advocates Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet wrote at the New York Times, “Men who commit violence rehearse and perfect it against their families first. Women and children are target practice, and the home is the training ground for these men’s later actions.”
It’s easy to practice violence on people who have less power than you do. And in our society, women have so little power that men can be convicted of hurting them and still legally acquire a gun.
Vox’s German Lopez explained in 2017 that there are federal laws that are meant to keep domestic abusers from obtaining guns. But those laws are only patchily enforced — and if you buy your gun at a private gun sale, which may not require a background check, it may never come up.
And Betts wrote his “rape list” when he was a juvenile. It was a threat he apparently never acted on. That’s not the kind of thing that a domestic abuse law would necessarily check.
But should it still have been possible for him to get his hands on a gun?
Violence against women, whether carried out or unrealized, is more than a warning sign for mass shootings. It’s a horrible scourge in its own right. Until it is taken seriously, history suggests that violent offenders are likely to continue to practice their violence on women in private, escalating more and more, until they take their private violence public.