We Need to Talk About the Role of Domestic Violence in Mass Shootings

Photo: Governor Tom Wolf (CC) of a vigil in Orlando for the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse.
By Amie Newman |

This week’s massacre of forty-nine people at Pulse, a gay dance club in Orlando, has cast a shadow of grief over the entire country. Omar Mateen, the lone gunman who was killed at the scene, also wounded fifty-three people. The victims were mostly young, gay, and Latinx.

While there’s no way to completely understand why this type of violence occurs and how to prevent it, we can’t help but try. What were Mateen’s motives? Was he virulently homophobic? Did he hate Latinx? Was he influenced by ISIS?

These are important questions to ask and try to answer, and any or all of them might be true. But when his ex-wife, Sitora Yusifiy, came forward to report that he not only beat her during their marriage but also held her hostage, domestic violence advocates heaved a collective sigh of frustration and despair once again.

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That’s because violence perpetrated by a man against a current or former partner is the too-often ignored alarm bell that alerts us to future violence.

In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Pamela Schiffman and Salamishah Tillet warned us that violence against women and families is but a rehearsal for further violent acts. They cite, among other data, a Washington state study that suggests that “a felony domestic violence conviction is the single greatest predictor of future violent crime among men.”

In too many cases, however, claims of domestic violence by intimate partners are not taken seriously by the public or police. But they should be.

There are countless examples of perpetrators of mass shootings who committed domestic violence before they wrought devastation on a larger scale. The Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was arrested for a domestic violence incident against his girlfriend in 2010, three years before the bombing. Robert Louis Dear, who last year killed 3 people in an attack on Planned Parenthood, also had a history of violence against women (including his wife, who said he pushed her out of a window).

Most mass shootings are actually domestic violence incidents that take part inside the home, according to Emily Crockett, writing about the connection between gun violence and domestic violence on Vox.

More than half of mass shootings (defined as a shooting in which at least four people are killed with a gun) involved a current or former intimate partner or a family member. Most of the victims of those shootings, 81 percent, are women and children.

Mateen’s ex-wife has said that he was “increasingly violent” during and after their marriage and she was afraid of him. She told the media her family had to “literally rescue” her. Yet media reports after the shooting in Orlando note “the shooter had no record of previous hate crimes.”

That, says Soraya Chemaly in her article in Rolling Stone this week, is an example of how short-sighted our understanding of domestic violence can be. And how such thinking stands in the way of learning more about how to potentially prevent mass shootings. In an interview with Democracy Now! Chemaly explains,

We have a problem, in general, addressing gender-based hate in the country. So, for the past several years, after several incidents where gender and other intersectional factors seemed to be relevant — for example, in the Elliot Rodger case or in the Ariel Castro case in Ohio, I have called the police department and said, “Was there a hate crime filed? Was there any kind of hate crime investigation that was started in either of these instances, and others, as well?” And their response has always been no.

Every nine seconds in the United States a woman is assaulted or beaten, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  Violence against women has become normalized in our culture. We allow for and excuse street harassment, sexual harassment, and media depictions of violence against women and girls — all of which desensitize us and contribute to an epidemic of gender-based violence in the U.S.

Chemaly also reminds us of the connections between homophobia and misogyny and the ways in which “toxic masculinity” contribute to causing this kind of violence:

If you consider the role that rigid gender stereotypes play, that ideas about masculinity, particularly toxic masculinity, play, that ideas about male entitlement play, then it’s better — it’s clearer to see the ways in which a hatred of women or a hatred of things that are feminine gets tessellated into a sexual shame or homophobia, so that it’s just a different manifestation of the same types of entitlements.

“Toxic masculinity” stems from the ways in which our traditional views of what it means to be a man in a patriarchal society impacts male behavior. When we force men to follow a set of rigid gender rules that tell them they cannot express a spectrum of emotions — except anger — and we tacitly approve of behaviors aimed at controlling women, it not only damages their lives but, as we see over and over again, the lives of those around them.

If we can’t name the violence for what it is, at its core, it’s hard to chart a course toward stopping it, both for the sake of the intimate partners and families who are victimized and for preventing more violence.

Over the past forty years, domestic violence advocates have worked to raise awareness of how deeply embedded violence against women is in the United States, and how important it is to believe women, intervene early, and address the “toxic masculinity” that contributes to the violence.

Although it may take an almost unfathomable tragedy like this most recent mass shooting, the voices of those willing to speak up about the links between domestic violence, gun violence, and mass shootings are getting louder. We just need to listen.

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