A Lethal Combination

The names Nikolas Cruz, Devin Kelley, Omar Mateen, Stephen Paddock and Adam Lanza invoke the terror of the U.S.’ seemingly innumerable mass shootings. These rampages—in places like schools, churches, nightclubs and concerts—have rattled the nation and sparked calls for stricter gun laws.

Murders of intimate partners and family members, mainly women and children, make up most of the gun deaths by mass shooting in the United States. And domestic violence foreshadows nearly one-quarter of all mass murders, including those where no family member was killed. In addition to manifesting other clear signs of violent behavior and a fascination with guns, the suspect in the latest school mass shooting in Florida is reported to have abused his girlfriend.

According to a 2017 study released by the research and advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, between 2009 and 2016, 54 percent of mass shootings (defined as four or more killed, not counting the shooter) included intimate partners and family members among the victims. More than 40 percent of the victims were children.

Additionally, of the 156 mass shootings evaluated by Everytown, 36 of them, or 23 percent, involved a shooter with a reported history of domestic abuse. This tally includes instances where an intimate partner or family member called authorities, and also when victims told friends or family members about abuse, reported threats or applied for a protective order, even if no charges were filed or were eventually dropped. It’s possible the true figure might be even higher, for all too often, domestic violence remains hidden and unreported.

Still, it’s clear, says Sarah Tofte, research director at Everytown for Gun Safety, that “if we want to reduce mass shootings in this country, we’re really going to have to address the connection between domestic violence and firearms.”

(John Savage / Creative Commons)

Those who have been convicted of a domestic violence offense, including misdemeanors, or are subject to a longterm domestic violence protective order are prohibited by federal law from purchasing or owning a gun. This prohibition has been in place since 1996, when the Feminist Majority and National Network to End Domestic Violence worked successfully with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (DN.J.) to pass what is known as the Lautenberg Amendment.

In the years since Lautenberg, incidents of intimate partner homicide have gone down dramatically. Between 1993 and 2007, the number of murder victims killed by intimate partners declined by 29 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In her 2014 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University who has extensively studied intimate partner violence, attributed this reduction to gun regulations.

“Domestic violence homicides have gone down. But clearly from the data they have gone down, in part, in great part, because of the gun restrictions that were put on known domestic violence offenders,” she told the committee.

A Michigan State University longitudinal study released last November showed that states requiring those under a domestic violence restraining order to give up their guns led to a 22 percent reduction in intimate partner murders committed using firearms over the 34-year period evaluated by the researchers.

In August 2016, in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania Mark Short murdered his wife Megan and their three children before killing himself. Just weeks prior to the shooting, Megan had called the police, telling them she feared that Short would harm her. She’d been trying to leave him.

Then, it was too late.

Although police had responded to two previous violent domestic incidents between Mark and Megan Short, because Mark Short had not been convicted of domestic violence, he was not prevented from owning firearms. He purchased his gun through a licensed dealer and then used that gun to kill his family.

“It makes sense to take guns away from people who exhibit impulsive anger, controlling behaviors, patterns of violence. That just makes sense,” says Lisette Johnson. She is among those with firsthand knowledge of the urgent need for tougher laws. In 2009, her abusive husband of 21 years shot her several times before killing himself.

While vital, the Lautenberg Amendment needs updating. The law does not include those subject to a temporary restraining order in its prohibitions. Nor does it cover boyfriends or convicted stalkers. To be subject  to the federal prohibition on gun ownership by abusers, the law only considers current or former spouses, someone who has a child with the victim, or someone who lives or has lived with the victim as a spouse. This leaves a loophole open for boyfriends who have committed domestic violence to fall through the cracks and gain access to firearms. Additionally, courts and prosecutors have struggled to interpret who qualifies as a spouse.

Since 1980, the proportion of intimate homicides committed by spouses has been on the decline while the number committed by dating partners has been steadily rising. As of 2008, the percentage of intimate homicides committed by dating partners had slightly surpassed the proportion committed by spouses, according to the Justice Department.

At a 2014 congressional hearing on domestic violence and guns before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who introduced bills in recent years that would have closed what’s known as “the boyfriend loophole,” noted that 76 percent of women who were murdered by intimate partners were stalked by that partner prior to the killing. Laws requiring universal background checks, which would close the loophole on unlicensed private dealers who are able to sell guns without checking the buyer’s criminal history, are another critical reform.

As bills designed to close loopholes in federal law have languished in Congress, many states have recently adopted laws that go beyond the federal government’s efforts to prevent certain domestic abusers from possessing or obtaining guns. Some have implemented laws that requires people convicted of a domestic violence crime or subject to a domestic violence restraining order to surrender handgun permits, gun purchaser identification cards and their guns to law enforcement. Others also have existing laws that require domestic abusers to surrender all guns in their possession when they are placed under a protective order.

The National Rifle Association did not respond to multiple requests for an interview and specific questions about state and federal gun laws and legislation related to domestic violence. An NRA spokesperson told the Associated Press in 2016 that the organization opposed state laws that remove guns from abusers under temporary protective orders. “There is no evidence that simply taking away people’s guns without a fair hearing makes the victims any safer,” Catherine Mortensen said.

Actually, there’s plenty of evidence. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that guns are more common in the households of women victims of domestic violence and their partners than in the general population, and their presence can lead to violence, threats or intimidation. Another concluded that gun ownership in abusive relationships increased the risk that a woman would be murdered by her partner by more than fivefold.

The accessibility of a firearm made domestic abuse turn fatal. Although federal and state laws have succeeded in reducing intimate partner homicides, federal law regulating gun ownership by domestic abusers has remained unchanged for over 21 years, and should be strengthened.

At the July 2014 congressional hearing on domestic violence and guns, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) discussed his proposal to close the federal loophole that can allow domestic abusers under temporary restraining orders to buy a gun. The bill ultimately went nowhere. What Blumenthal noted then remains true today: “Unfortunately and tragically and unacceptably, most victims are still at the mercy of their abuser’s rage.”


An expanded version of this piece appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Ms. Join our community of readers to receive our next issue before it hits newsstands and support our fearless reporting.