Why We Need To Address Domestic Violence To Stop Mass Shootings

August 25th 2017

Whether cognitively, historically, or criminally, patterns are the means by which humans predict what will happen next. It's estimated that there have already been between 200 to 300 mass shootings this year, and one of the clearest patterns to emerge out of these attacks is that the perpetrators often have histories of domestic violence.

This was true in the case of Omar Mateen, the Pulse Nightclub shooter, whose rampage last year in Orlando left 50 people dead and more than 50 injured, nearly a decade after he reportedly physically and psychologically abused his ex-wife. It was also true for Cedric Anders, who killed three people including himself, an eight-year-old, and his estranged wife in the April shooting of North Park Elementary School, the 12th school shooting this year

But what is the connection between histories of intimate partner violence and mass shootings? And how can it help us prevent similar tragedies from occurring?

Patterns of violent behavior are one indicator of future mass violence attacks.

According to The New York Times:

“When Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, analyzed F.B.I. data on mass shootings from 2009 to 2015, it found that 57 percent of the cases included a spouse, former spouse, or other family member among the victims — and that 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.”

Though there is a connection between domestic violence and mass shootings, it would be inaccurate to say that one leads neatly to the other.

“It’s not that I would say being involved in domestic violence is a precursor to a mass casualty attack, but it is a type of behavior that you would want to consider in evaluating someone, because it is a common characteristic we have found with mass casualty attackers across the motivational spectrum,” John Cohen, a professor at Rutgers University and former counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said in an interview with ATTN:.

Following his tenure at the DHS, where he led efforts to prevent and respond to mass shootings, Cohen has focused on developing an analysis of mass casualty attacks in the U.S. and Europe, to understand the characteristics of attackers and create a prevention framework. In his view, many of the people who go on to commit acts of mass violence usually show signs of behavioral issues beforehand, including heightened anger, isolation, excessive time online researching a cause, and a deep sense of failure about their own lives.

“We’re not talking about true ideological warriors. We’re talking about people who have underlying behavioral or mental health issues who self-connect with extremist causes, who develop or form some grievance in their mind and then, based on that grievance, develop the justification for going for the attack,” he said.

The parallels of violence between abusers and those that commit mass shootings are perhaps best illuminated in a term experts use for domestic violence: intimate terrorism. It refers to the “use of physical abuse [in addition to] a broad range of tactics designed to get and keep control over the other person in the relationship,” according to Project Safe, a nonprofit working to end domestic violence through prevention and education.

According to Cohen, in almost every mass shooting, there is a historic “stressor” event or catalyst that pushes someone from their distraught anger toward preparing for mass violence. He points to the example of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Bombers, whose stressor appeared to be having his naturalization process delayed due to his 2009 arrest for domestic violence.

Lack of gun control and holes in the system endanger everyone.

Last year, in a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court clarified that even misdemeanor, unintentional acts of domestic violence could bar a person from owning a gun if they are convicted. In theory, the ruling could create safer environments for everyone, especially women.

Everytown for Gun Safety found that 47 percent fewer women are killed by an intimate partner in states that require background checks for all gun purchases. This may seem like common sense to some — more gun ownership in a state means more homicides, with more women killed by people (usually men) that they know, a trend that research from Boston University confirmed.

However, according to Dr. Robert Spitzer, a SUNY Cortland professor with expertise on gun control policy, the failure of states to administer existing gun control laws effectively makes the ruling easy to get around.

“The bigger problem is really at the state level because states have been rolling back stricter gun laws and have failed to enact strict gun laws,” Spitzer told ATTN.

The NRA is largely responsible for that regression, according to Spitzer, through their recent campaigns to allow guns on college campuses, and to eliminate the need for concealed carry permits and the gun safety training that goes with them.

“In fact, one of the areas in which the National Rifle Association has been fighting has been trying to restore gun rights to people who have committed various crimes in the past, so they’ve weighed in on the other side of this,” Spitzer said.

This battle on the state level has come after a staggering number of mass shootings this year, including the shooting of members of Congress by James T. Hodgkinson during a Republican baseball practice, which left five injured. Eleven years prior to the attack, Hodgkinson was arrested for domestic battery and discharge of a firearm.

The incident, which was the 153rd mass shooting of this year, was one of the most high-profile mass shootings since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, in which Adam Lanza killed 26 adults and children. Spitzer noted that, before this, Lanza had also killed his mother, whom Spitzer said Lanza had been "psychologically abusing" by not physically speaking to her for two years.

We need to expand mental health services.

“Really, the only way to prevent these types of attacks is in the early detection of a high-risk individual and the use of multidisciplinary intervention strategy that are intended to prevent the act from occurring,” Cohen said.

From Cohen’s perspective, it isn’t a coincidence that violence is rising in communities that are struggling to find inpatient and outpatient coverage for people with mental health or behavioral issues. To him, the solution will be found in confronting a culture that often makes domestic violence invisible and creating a framework where communities and mental health professionals intervene in situations where violence may escalate.

“The goal would be, once you’ve identified somebody that based on [a Behavioral Risk Assessment] represents a risk, to figure out the right intervention strategy: Is it increased mental health services? Is it working with the family? Is it creating educational opportunities?” Cohen said.

“It’s understanding what are the underlying factors that are causing this person to travel toward violent attacks and address[ing] those causes.”

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