The Link Between Mass Shooters and Domestic Violence

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domestic violence

Photo by Rae Allen via Flickr

New investigative reporting has revealed that almost 60 percent of mass shootings over the past six years were linked either directly or indirectly to domestic violence.

The analysis of 749 mass shootings showed that 36 percent were committed by males with a history of violence against women. Additionally, some 46 percent of the shootings involved actual incidents of domestic violence and, according to the report, “about 60 percent were either or both.”

“Almost 60 percent of shooting incidents with four or more casualties involved an aggressor with a history of—or in the act of—domestic violence,” the investigative report by asserted.

The figures represent the latest in a growing chain of evidence that links domestic violence to gun deaths.

For decades, gun control and domestic violence advocates have recognized that guns play a role in intimate partner abuse, and they have tried to enact laws to stop abusers from acquiring or keeping guns. While such restrictions show promise for saving women’s lives, preventing abusers from getting or keeping guns has proven to be both politically and practically difficult.

Meanwhile, mass shooters continue to kill. The more lethal the shooting, the more likely the shooter was a domestic abuser.

The carnage caused by domestic abusers suggests that solutions will have to stretch beyond gun control alone to target the root causes of domestic violence.

Many studies indicate that domestic violence goes hand in hand with gender inequality and inflexible views of what it means to be a man. For example, researchers asked men how much stress they would feel if they didn’t live up to traditional, rigid notions about gender, such as when a woman outperforms them at work, they couldn’t find a sexual partner, or lost at sports.

The researchers found that the more stress caused by violating those stiff gender norms, the more likely men were to be violent toward their partners, and to believe that intimate partner violence is acceptable. Among men arrested for domestic violence, those who were more stressed about not meeting strict views of men’s physical prowess were more sexually aggressive against their partners.

Recognizing the connection between notions of masculinity, intimate partner violence and mass shootings opens new avenues for action to prevent mass killings.

joan cook

Dr. Joan Cook

Research spanning two decades shows that dating violence prevention programs that tackle gender issues have a positive impact on adolescents’ beliefs about intimate partner violence and their own aggressive behaviors.

Drawing on interventions that target boys and men’s views of gender and gender equality as well as teaching them good relational skills has the potential to curb domestic violence, and in turn, mass shootings.

Dr. Apryl Alexander, director of the Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service, and Training (Denver FIRST) at the University of Denver, has said that “developmentally appropriate, comprehensive sex education is one meaningful prevention approach in addressing interpersonal violence is a national leader in violence and prevention.”

She adds: “Comprehensive sex education goes beyond teaching children and adolescents about sexual intercourse—it also includes education on how to develop and maintain healthy relationships, affirmative consent, and health advocacy.”

Dr. Alexander regularly provides healthy relationship workshops to high schoolers in Colorado.

“We discuss differences between healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships,” she explained.

She continued:

Each year, several high schoolers share stories about abusive relationships they’ve already been in. I receive questions such as, ‘What do I do when my partner threatens to harm themselves when I try to end the relationship?’ and ‘ What happens when I tell my teacher but they’re unsure what to do?’

This kind of violence prevention programming starts early—long before domestic abusing men are buying guns. Dating violence is already common in middle school, at a critical juncture in boys developing sense of masculinity.

Recent data point to promising approaches for transforming boys’ views of gender in the middle school years.

“Comprehensive violence prevention strategies begin early and shape the cultural contexts that allow violence, in all its forms, to happen” says Dr. Heather McCauley, an assistant professor of Social Work at Michigan State University, who is nationally recognized for her research on preventing and responding to violence.

She continues:

Our research has found that addressing rigid ideas about masculinity is an effective strategy to reduce boys’ perpetration of relationship abuse in middle and high school.

Other studies have found that youth who use homophobic teasing are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence, prompting us to target homophobia in our prevention programs. By extension, comprehensive prevention of mass shootings would ideally begin early and target these same attitudes about gender and sexuality that are at the root of violence, rather than stop-gap measures after these attitudes have already taken hold.

Despite evidence that prevention programming changes gender attitudes and behaviors, most states do not require dating violence education in schools. Research on universal prevention programs can guide the way to new policies, though such programs are challenging to implement and require political will to enact.

Anne DePrince

Dr. Anne DePrince

There is reason to rally the political will. As the recent analysis of more than 700 hundred mass shootings confirms, domestic violence is at the root of most mass shootings—and rigid gender views are at the root of domestic violence.

Gender views will not show up on background checks, but research points to a new line of defense that the country has yet to try in order to curb mass shootings.

Policymakers and communities should invest in educating boys and girls about gender equity as early as possible to prevent domestic violence and, in turn, mass shootings.

Editor’s Note: This version corrects an earlier post of this essay to clarify that an estimated 60 percent of mass shooters were “directly or indirectly” linked to domestic violence, either through the specific shooting incident or because of a prior history of spousal violence—or both.

 Dr. Joan Cook is an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Anne DePrince, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Denver, is writing a book on violence against women with Oxford University Press.

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