The deadly link between domestic violence and mass shootings

A candlelight vigil for the shooting victims of Texas gunman Devin Patrick Kelley. Those victims would be alive if the U.S. Air Force had followed the rules on reporting Kelley’s conviction for domestic violence.

The fight for rational gun safety laws is frustrating. But the information that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was also guilty of domestic abuse — a conviction that should have kept him from buying a gun — seems to be opening some eyes.

Devin Patrick Kelley, who opened fire with an assault rifle to kill 26 people at a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had been court-martialed for trying to strangle his wife and for fracturing his stepson’s skull. Kelley is just the latest in a series of mass shooters who also have committed domestic violence. Of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history, nine were committed by domestic abusers.

According to research by Everytown for Gun Safety, which has analyzed all mass shootings since 2009, more than half of all mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic or family violence.

In at least 54 percent of mass shootings (85), the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member. These domestic violence mass shootings resulted in 422 victims being killed—more than 40 percent (181) of whom were children. A majority of these cases—56—also ended with the perpetrators killing themselves.

Yet the act of mass shooting is not the first instance of domestic violence by these perpetrators. In nearly half the mass shootings the gun safety group studied, the shooters already had committed such domestic violence or threatened to do so.

These findings reaffirm the value of gun violence prevention policies that address the circumstances underlying mass shootings: strong domestic violence laws that keep guns away from abusers, mechanisms that allow for the temporary removal of guns from individuals who have exhibited dangerous recent behavior, and background checks on all firearm sales to prevent people who are prohibited from having guns from buying them.

Still, one-third of mass shootings were done by a shooter who was legally prohibited from owning a gun. Those prohibitions don’t apply to private sales or to previously owned weapons. Or to cases when men who commit domestic violence aren’t even reported in the first place.

Devin Patrick Kelley was kicked out of the Air Force for “bad conduct” (a discharge less serious than dishonorable discharge), and his conviction should have banned him from buying an assault rifle. But the Air Force never reported his conviction to the federal database that gun dealers must check before selling a firearm, an omission it called a “mistake.” According to an NPR story:

Under federal law, his conviction disqualified him from legally possessing a firearm. But there was an apparent breakdown in getting information about his conviction to the proper federal database.

“Initial information indicates that Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” said Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek in an email.

Top Air Force brass have ordered a complete review of the case.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would seek oversight hearings on how the Air Force could have made such an error. Sens. Kristin Gillibrand and Richard Blumenthal are asking Secretary of Defense James Mattis for the military to conduct a widespread investigation on whether the military complies with such reporting mandates.

Unfortunately, that answer seems to be “no.” According to a story from Newsweek, “The Department of Defense has only one active domestic violence case reported to the federal gun database.”

You read that right. One case. That’s despite the fact that, in the military:

More than one-third of women and one-fourth of men have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking by an intimate partner, according to a study conducted for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The study found that 22 percent of active duty service members, over a 12-month period, perpetrated violence against their partners.

A 2015 Pentagon report showed that the armed forces had failed to provide information to the FBI on 30 percent of military members who should be banned from buying a firearm. Of course, that’s for all service members convicted of any felony, not just domestic violence. So the reporting discrepancy may be accurate.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is supposed to ensure public safety by “not letting guns fall into the wrong hands,” as its website touts. The system was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, was launched in 1998, and claims that a store selling guns can “instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms.” Yet reporting in recent years has pointed out huge holes in this system. Besides the lack of reports from the military, if states don’t report data on convictions, if data are incomplete, or if there were arrests without convictions, gun sales aren’t stopped. “Some of the biggest challenges for the database, experts say, are domestic violence and drug cases, which often have inconclusive ends,” says an NPR story on this topic.

The link between domestic violence and mass shootings is inescapable. According to a story from Business Insider:

Nine of the shooters on this list of  the top 10 most deadly mass shootings in modern America  committed violence against women, threatened violence against  women, or disparaged women. …

Forensic psychiatrist Liza Gold, who teaches psychiatry at Georgetown and edited the book Gun Violence and Mental Illness, told Business Insider that mass shooters tend to be “impulsive and angry about a lot of different  things” and many have a history with law enforcement or violence, especially domestic violence.

We’ll let Samantha Bee tell it, as she calls abused women the “canary in the coal mine” for mass shootings:

There are many common-sense gun regulations favored by large majorities of Americans. These include universal background checks for gun purchases, curbs on letting the mentally ill buy guns, and restricting gun purchases for those on terror watch lists. Even an assault weapons ban has a majority of support. Yet efforts to enact such laws go nowhere nationally.

The relatively minor no-brainer suggestion to ban the sale of bump stocks, used by the Las Vegas shooter to increase his rate of firing, seems to have died at the federal level, although some states are going ahead on their own. Massachusetts recently became the first state to ban the sale of bump stocks since the Las Vegas massacre (California already had such a ban). The Illinois State Senate passed such a ban, but the measure failed in the House.

I continue to contend that limiting the size of magazines would be the most effective in lowering carnage from gun violence, as you can’t keep shooting if your ammunition runs out.

Efforts to enact any gun safety regulations are quickly shot down by the National Rifle Association and the legislators they support. But if the election in Virginia is any indication, voters seem to be more open to some kind of gun safety laws—the 17 percent of Virginia voters who listed “gun policy” as their most important issue split evenly between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. The NRA spent $2 million on Virginia races and came up mostly empty for the effort statewide, up and down the ticket.

Whatever your party, surely we all can agree that men with a history of domestic violence shouldn’t be able to get their hands on a gun. Not when there’s so much evidence that such men can go on to shoot and kill multiple people.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Nov. 12, 2017.

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