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In recent years, a friend and I have been alert to a particularly dark kind of news. When a mass killing pops up in the news, one of us sends the other a link, along with a note: How long before they find out this guy has a domestic violence background?
And then we wait. Within a few days, the news trickles out. There isn’t always a connection, but it happens often enough to make us feel like jaded psychics. Ronald Lee Haskell, who killed six members of his ex-wife’s family in Texas in 2014, had previously been arrested for assaulting his wife, and had allegedly choked his mom. Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been arrested for domestic assault. Spencer Hight, who killed eight people, including his estranged wife, in Texas a few months ago, had allegedly slammed his wife’s face into a wall. Most recently, Devin Kelley, who killed 26 in a Texas church on Sunday, had previously been charged with assault, according to Air Force records, after choking his first wife and fracturing his toddler stepson’s skull.
Sometimes, my friend and I wonder about the warning signs no one was heeding — about the women who tried to leave, who asked for restraining orders, who asked for sole custody of their kids and were denied, who moved several states away in the middle of the night, who asked their bosses to cover their shifts because their boyfriends had figured out where they worked. We wonder about what could have been prevented if only someone had been paying attention to those women.
We haven’t been paying attention.
In the days since the Kelley shooting, a new kind of coverage has emerged, which points out the link between mass shootings and domestic violence. A recent analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety finds that in 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, the victims included the killer’s current or former intimate partner or family member. This doesn’t mean that domestic violence is predictive of mass shootings. It does mean that we need to be paying attention to an age-old problem that we’ve abetted with silence, outdated cultural assumptions and misogyny. For too long, we’ve viewed what researchers call intimate partner violence as none of our business, a private matter, and not a larger and deeply troubling social problem.
“Rigorous studies on risk factors for mass shootings are scarce because these are rare events — though becoming less rare,” says Daniel W. Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research. “But the direct connections are still noteworthy — a lot of mass shootings target family and intimates, and lots of mass shooters have DV [domestic violence] backgrounds.”
There are reasons why we don’t do better by victims of domestic violence. We lack the resources and the policies that women in these situations need. We fail to understand why domestic violence happens, and why it’s so hard for women to escape it.
Families can fail to get it. Courts can fail to get it. Some police officers don’t regard “domestic violence as very serious, or they think the woman is crazy, or they don’t understand why she would return to her batterer,” says Lori Post, a violence researcher and professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
The press gets it wrong, too. Crime stories tend to look at how inexplicable a domestic homicide is; they tend to focus on how the neighbors are confounded by what happened, how the killer seemed like a nice family man and churchgoer, and there’s no clear motive for why said churchgoer killed his wife. (As if anything the victim could have done would justify her being killed.) A few years ago, I wrote about the flawed media trope that domestic abusers simply “snap” — as if mass shootings related to domestic violence weren’t preceded by years of coercion, control and abuse.
Reporters and police officers and judges and parents are a reflection of the culture at large. There’s a temptation, I think, to regard men beating women as the inevitable devolution of a bad relationship, a dynamic as old as cave men. We lack the knowledge of what domestic violence looks like, why it happens and why it’s so incredibly difficult for victims to safely leave abusive situations. (Among the many reasons: Women are most at risk of being hurt or killed when they attempt to get out.) We see them as somehow complicit in their own abuse — for what reason, it’s hard to fathom, if you stop and think about it — and therefore, not quite as “innocent” as bystanders in a church. Not quite as worthy of our sympathy and concern.
“The first thing that people often ask is, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’” says Patti D’Agostino, a domestic violence survivor I know who is co-founding a new advocacy center for domestic violence victims in an underserved area of Westchester County, N.Y. “It’s not that simple. …Domestic violence is something that happens to you over the course of time. … It’s years of training, years of manipulation, to the point where you’ve lost yourself. You don’t know who are anymore. You’re not thinking for yourself.”
In the wake of so many stories about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuse, followed quickly by allegations against many more powerful men, it’s become increasingly clear that we have a broad cultural problem that goes beyond any one man. The same is true for men who batter their partners. Domestic violence is not about a particular couple, or about everyday arguments that escalate. “This isn’t about a misunderstanding over a topic at home over finances,” D’Agostino says. When women are killed in this country, over half the time their murders are connected to intimate partner violence. This is, as my friend likes to say, an epidemic. And it’s worth paying attention to domestic violence not just because men who abuse women sometimes pull out guns and kill lots of other people.
“I’m glad that there’s interest in exploring the association between these public mass shootings and domestic violence,” says Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Ortner Center on Family Violence. “I hope we can extend the same concern to women who face abusers with guns every day.”
It’s worth paying attention to domestic violence for its own sake. Because those wives and girlfriends and exes who are beaten and berated and frightened and fleeing — they alone are enough.
Libby Copeland is a former Washington Post staff reporter who writes on culture and gender. Follow her on Twitter @libbycopeland.
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