To prevent mass shootings, treat domestic violence as the threat it is

Domestic violence often foreshadows future acts of gun violence. So why aren’t we doing more to address the link?

After each horrific mass shooting, our country seeks answers. Who could commit such a crime? How could we have prevented it? What warning signs did we miss?

The pundits debate, the National Rifle Association (NRA) suggests more guns, and Republicans often insist there is no way to identify dangerous people.

But when you examine the evidence, a disturbing pattern emerges: the perpetrators often have a history of domestic violence.

Research shows a history of domestic violence is a significant risk factor for future violence. The gunman who opened fire on House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others at a baseball field in Alexandria earlier this month had such a history. The shooter at the Pulse Nightclub massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, also had a violent past. So did the perpetrators of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting, the San Bernardino elementary school shooting, the Isla Vista shooting, the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, and the Virginia Tech shooting — to name a few.

While these instances made headlines due to their public nature, the vast majority of shootings committed by domestic abusers occur in practical obscurity. In the United States, an American woman is shot and killed by her intimate partner every 16 hours. A recent shooting in Sandy, Utah left Memorez Rackley and her 6-year-old son dead; her other young son escaped in critical condition. Mere days before this tragedy, Rackley reported the gunman to police, but law enforcement said it was not treated as a domestic violence incident because Rackley and the shooter did not live together.

Last month, the small community of Bogue Chitto, Mississippi was also left reeling after a domestic violence incident escalated and left eight people dead, including two children and a sheriff’s deputy. The gunman was a relative or acquaintance of nearly all of the victims and had a history of violence towards his wife.

These are only two examples of the more than 2,300 cases of lethal domestic violence that occur each year. This number is a gross underestimation, however, as the FBI is missing data regarding the relationship between the perpetrator and victim for more than half of all murder victims. And nearly 70 percent of murders over the last decade were committed with firearms.

If the link between domestic violence and gun violence — in both public and in private — is so evident, why haven’t our legislators taken action to address this correlation? Why are they disregarding this pattern?

Perhaps because the victims are mostly women.

As we are currently seeing with Republicans’ health care plan, legislators often relegate “women’s issues” to the backburner. And though domestic gun violence is an epidemic in our country, we are not all affected by it to the same degree. One in four women will experience severe physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime. Thirty-nine percent of domestic mass shooting victims are women, and 42 percent — the majority — are children. Domestic violence also disproportionately affects women of color. In 2014, black women were murdered at a rate more than twice as high as white women.

Despite the prevalence of domestic violence and the clear risk factors a history of violence presents, our laws still make it far too easy for abusers to obtain firearms. While federal law prohibits purchase and possession of firearms by those subject to domestic violence restraining orders, it does not prohibit purchase or possession by those subject to temporary domestic violence restraining orders. Many — but not all — states have closed this gap by prohibiting individuals who are subject to temporary domestic violence restraining orders from purchasing or possessing firearms. And some states do not prohibit firearm purchase or possession for any domestic violence restraining orders.

Additionally, federal law does not currently outline a process for abusers to surrender guns they already own. Instead, states establish their own surrender processes. Not all states have mandated surrender of firearms for individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence or those subject to domestic violence restraining orders. Implementation of such policies varies from state to state, leaving numerous opportunities for abusers to keep their guns.

And while firearms can be removed from abusive husbands in some states, they often cannot be removed from an abusive boyfriend unless the victim has children with or has cohabitated with the abuser. This gap in legal protection — which also applies to the purchase and possession of firearms — is colloquially known as “the boyfriend loophole.” In 2008, nearly half of all intimate partner homicides were perpetrated by dating partners. As more women are choosing to postpone marriage or deciding not to marry at all, this legal loophole is seriously troubling.

When confronted with the grim reality of domestic violence in America, the NRA denies the need to strengthen these laws. Instead, they promote the idea that guns make victims safer. But the evidence suggests otherwise. When an abusive partner has access to a gun, the risk the non-abusive partner will die increases more than five-fold. Additionally, one study shows that every 10 percent increase in a state’s general gun ownership correlates to a 10.2 percent increase in gun-related murders of women.

Legislators cannot look away any longer. The link between armed abusers and domestic violence fatalities is clear. The link between domestic violence and acts of future violence is clear.

Removing firearms from domestic abusers makes homes and communities safer — violence in the home does not always stay in the home. Preventing domestic abusers from accessing firearms should be an immediate priority for leaders on both sides of the aisle. As we saw in Alexandria — and as we see every day — the consequences of inaction are deadly.


Ellen Morrissey is the editorial intern at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. She is a rising sophomore at Kenyon College and intends to major in English with a concentration in Law & Society.