Guest Commentary

There’s a troubling link between mass shootings and domestic abuse

Lori Alhadeff is seen hugging Fred Guttenberg, both parents of the Stoneman Douglas shooting victims, before a press conference held by a group of the parents to comment on the school shooting in Texas.
Lori Alhadeff is seen hugging Fred Guttenberg, both parents of the Stoneman Douglas shooting victims, before a press conference held by a group of the parents to comment on the school shooting in Texas. TNS

We need to talk about the connection between mass shootings and domestic violence. Because there is a connection, and it is distinct and quite sobering.

The mother of one of the shooting victims at Santa Fe High School in Texas reported that the shooting suspect had made a number of advances toward her daughter, which she initially rejected privately, and finally rejected publicly in front of his classmates. The mother believes this rejection was his motivation for coming to the school with a gun and killing her daughter and nine other victims. The investigation is ongoing.

Data collected between 2009 and 2016 show that in 57 percent of the mass shootings in America, the perpetrator killed a current or former intimate partner or family member. This number does not include mass shootings, such as the Pulse Nightclub massacre, in which the perpetrator did not kill an intimate partner, but had a history of domestic violence. Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people in the Orlando club, had previously beaten his former wife and held her hostage.

Nor do these figures include incidents such as the 2014 Isla Vista killing spree, in which Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others in order to “punish women for rejecting him.”

To make sense of this connection, we need to understand the roots of domestic violence. Domestic violence is the result of one person’s desire to have power and control over another. It has little to do with anger management, substance abuse, poverty or other factors generally thought to cause abuse.

Domestic abuse is rooted in privilege and entitlement. In short, the perpetrator feels entitled to the attention, allegiance or obedience of the victim and will exert whatever control necessary to try to secure it. While both men and women may inflict violence on their partners at times, perpetrators who use violence as part of a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior are overwhelmingly male. The violence is driven by a desire to dominate their partner.

Many of these same themes are present in mass shootings. Perpetrators often see themselves as rejected by a woman, an employer, an institution or society at large. They may feel threatened by a group (immigrants, the LGBTQ community, women) whom they see as threatening their perceived rights. Their response to this sense of loss is to exert the ultimate display of power and control — to kill.

Where do we go from here? How to we begin to address the toxic dynamics that underlie both domestic violence and mass shootings? One of the first and most basic steps we can take is to educate ourselves and help our children understand what a healthy relationship does, and does not, look like. It is imperative that our teenagers learn how to recognize the dynamics of power and control, and are given the tools to appropriately and safely respond. All of us — employers, teachers, parents, clergy — need to be intimately familiar with the warning signs of abuse.

SAFEHOME’s Education and Prevention team has been collaborating with local schools and community organizations to provide this information for years, and is happy to work with your organization to help prepare you to recognize and respond to these warning signs.

We owe it to our children and our community to address this issue head on. We need to set aside the easy rhetoric and take a hard look at the data and the story it tells. To do anything less is a grave disservice to our children.

Kristin Brumm is the Executive Vice President of SAFEHOME, a metro-area domestic violence agency serving more than 9,000 survivors a year.