It's Time to Make Domestic Violence a Primary Focus — And Not Only Because So Many Perpetrators Go on to Commit Mass Shootings

Domestic violence needs to come out of the shadows.
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s.e. smith
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Domestic violence needs to come out of the shadows.

By the time it takes you to read to the end of this sentence, roughly five people will have been abused by intimate partners in acts of what people are fond of calling "domestic violence," as though it needs to be differentiated from other kinds of violence, "real" violence. The way that we talk about this kind of violence, perpetrated upon people by their partners, parents, and close family members, is important — and not least because many mass shooters also have a history of domestic violence. 

You may have heard the claim that "a history of domestic violence is a precursor to violence," though what people really mean is additional violence. The brutality that people practice inside the context of a family or relationship is every bit as horrific as it would be anywhere else. But people who learn that they can get away with behaving abusively in their home lives often take those lessons into society at large, and that has big implications for the way we manage this country's significant gun violence crisis. 

Nearly daily, at least one incident of gun violence that injures or kills more than four people occurs somewhere in the United States. In the last month, we saw violence in Baton Rouge, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Worth, Hartford, Chicago, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Oakland, San Bernardino, and Detroit, to name just a few incidents. Between January 2009 and July 2015, Everytown for Gun Safety identified 134 mass killings, involving four or more deaths, due to gun violence. 

When people think of mass shootings and killings, they typically think of very public events. Shootings taking place in schools, clubs, movie theaters, workplaces. The ubiquity of such shootings turns the world into a terrifying place where you can be shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where leaving your house feels like taking your life into your hands. 

But for many Americans, it's staying at home that's dangerous. Fifty-seven percent of the incidents Everytown examined involved intimate partner violence and killings of family members. Twenty-one of the perpetrators had prior histories of domestic violence — and that statistic reflects cases in which people were charged with the crime, leaving the cases of people who endure abuse in silence out of fear, coercion, or other factors unmentioned. 

Over half of mass killings in the United States take place within the context of "domestic violence." As its name implies, it is hidden, secretive, taking place within the home, a private matter, a "domestic" issue, something to be handled internally, within the family. It is not something for public consumption. To be a victim of domestic violence is often to live in fear, shame, and coercion — don't report it, or your partner will punish you, and you will be exposed as the kind of person who lies in a violent home. 

To be a perpetrator of this kind of violence is to know that cultural and social attitudes will often ensure a complete absence of liability. Researchers in 2009 found that roughly one-third of domestic violence reports result in a prosecution, which is higher than some imagine, but still depressingly low — and this reflects only the cases that are reported. A study of defendants in 2002 found that one-third of those brought up on violent felony charges were there because of a domestic violence case. Twenty thousand people pick up the phone to a domestic violence hotline every day. 

Intimate partner and family violence is a pervasive problem in the United States, and the tendency to treat it as an internal matter is hurtful for everyone. It hurts victims in the immediate short term, because they internalize the message that this is a private matter and not something they should report, even when violence threatens to become fatal. Notably, in a violent household, the presence of a gun escalates the risk of homicide by 500 percent, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence claims. 

But it has bigger implications as well. People who learn that it is OK to be violent to partners, family members, and pets learn by extension that it is OK to be violent in general. Domestic violence isn't a precursor to violence — it's an indicator that someone is violent, and as that person is emboldened by a lack of consequences, that violence is going to spread. 

In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a misogynistic rampage that killed six people and wounded 14 more. Prior to his attack, he'd distinguished himself with online rants, hurling hot drinks at two women, and trying to shove a woman off a ledge. 

Robert Lewis Dear, who attacked a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last year, had a documented history of domestic violence and sexual assault. Omar Mateen was so violent that his wife left him, but was still afraid to report it, before he entered Pulse on Latin Night and murdered 49 people. 

Cho Seung-Hui was accused of stalking before he shot 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. Syed Rizwan Farook grew up in a violent household before 2015's San Bernardino shooting.

This is not a new trend. Linkages between testing out violence at home and then bringing it into the outside world go back decades. Law enforcement agencies, advocacy groups, and even legislators attempting to restrict gun ownership for people with a history of domestic violence agree: If someone is violent and abusive at home, there's every reason to believe that violence will not stay confined to the home. Even if it did, that would be an inherent problem, because violence against anyone in any context is not acceptable, but it also represents a very clear intervention point for taking on rampage violence.

Yet, there's a persistent attempt to separate intimate partner and family violence out, as though it's exceptional and should be placed in its own little corner. The media is rarely interested in it unless it's explosively violent — like when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Otherwise, it becomes a footnote to "more important" violence, an afterthought, as in the case of Ashley Guindon, a police officer who was shot and killed earlier this year while responding to a domestic violence call. The fact that the suspect also killed his wife was mentioned as a perfunctory addition in most reports. 

Look at the instance of Shaneka Thompson, who was shot and killed by her boyfriend before he went out to shoot two police officers — her death is always reported in conjunction with that information, and usually subordinately. Her death would have been unremarkable, routine, and invisible but for the fact that her boyfriend took his sphere of violence outside the home. 

People like to talk about domestic violence during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, trading statistics and bemoaning the sad state of affairs for the victims of domestic violence. But the rest of the year, it recedes into the background, tucked away, hidden — the flaked and fading "There's No Excuse for Domestic Violence" stickers that adorn the bumpers of the police cars in my town are a pretty apt testimony to the treatment of domestic violence in U.S. society. 

We wonder why we can't stop mass shootings — we cry out for gun control, but that's only one piece of the picture. We must stop ignoring domestic violence, must explicitly first and foremost acknowledge it as violence, as something unacceptable, as something not OK, and we must also talk about how our tacit acceptance of violence inside the home also breeds violence outside it. 

We need to be able to offer more protections to victims who report, to encourage them to come forward. We need to take complaints seriously and investigate them vigorously, something the FBI already knows significantly improves prosecution and conviction rates. Domestic violence needs to be treated as a serious action with actual serious consequences because otherwise, we are not taking meaningful steps to break the cycle of horrific violence in America — American women are 11 times more likely to be murdered by guns than their counterparts in many other regions of the world, and while they account for 15 percent of overall gun deaths in America, they make up 50 percent of the victims of mass killings. And while women are more at risk of domestic violence, people of other genders are not exempt.

Domestic violence is our collective problem. It's not a private household matter, and it's time to stop treating it like one.  

Photo: mschellhase/Creative Commons