The American gun crisis? It’s largely a domestic violence crisis

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Jerilee Bennett/AP</span>
Photograph: Jerilee Bennett/AP

Seven people died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Sunday at a birthday party, after the boyfriend of one of the party guests showed up with a gun. The boyfriend came to the mobile home park where the party was being held and shot six adults, including his girlfriend. Five of them died at the scene, and another died later, at the hospital. Then he killed himself. He didn’t fire on the children who were there.

The Colorado Springs shooting comes on the heels of another shooting in Austin, Texas, last month, when Stephen Broderick, a former police officer, killed his ex-wife, Amanda, her teenage daughter, Alyssa, and Alyssa’s boyfriend, Willie, in their home. At the time of the murders, Broderick was out on bail after being indicted for sexually abusing Alyssa. In her court petition asking for a restraining order against her stepfather, filed in June 2020, 10 months before he murdered her, Alyssa wrote that she feared the worst. “I’m afraid that to him, a protective order will just be a piece of paper … I’m afraid he might hurt me or my mom for coming forward.”

Related: Guns don't kill people, domestic abusers do. Take their guns away | Jill Filipovic

There is a grim ritual to America’s mass shootings: the condemnations and calls for gun control from the left, the callous and often-parodied bromides of “thoughts and prayers” from the right. But the mass shootings that so often capture media attention and dominate the American conversation about gun violence are the ones that happen in public – those incidents where a person with severe mental illness, or a fanatical rightwing agenda, opens fire in a crowded public space, like a church, a school or a grocery store.

But much of American gun violence, including multiple-fatality events, does not happen in those public places, and many of the perpetrators of mass shootings are not strangers to the people they kill. Instead, a disproportionate amount of America’s mass shootings are domestic violence incidents, in which a man (and overwhelmingly the perpetrators are men) who has already been abusive towards his family, murders the wife, girlfriend, mother, in-laws or children who he was already hurting. Often the victims, like Alyssa Broderick, were people who had already disclosed that they were being abused, people who had already asked for protection.

According to Beverly Kingston, the executive director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, 61% of mass shootings in the United States occur entirely within the home. Even when gun violence spills out into the public arena, domestic abuse is still closely related. The gun control advocacy group Everytown estimates that in 57% of the mass shootings that occurred between January 2009 and June 2014, the perpetrator killed an intimate partner or family member. A Boston University study establishes that the connection between public mass murder and domestic violence is even more longstanding: their findings indicated that of all the perpetrators of mass shootings in America between 1966 and 2020, nearly half had a documented history of violence against women before the massacres.

A 2003 study found that a woman in an abusive relationship is five times more likely to be killed by her partner if there is a gun in the house

Meanwhile, guns have become an increasingly large part of America’s domestic violence epidemic. An average 57 American women every month are murdered with a gun by a current or former partner. And while domestic violence murders in the US have thankfully decreased – at least before the pandemic – the number of gun-related domestic violence incidents has gone up. Between 2008 and 2017, gun murders in which women were killed by romantic partners rose by 15%. Even when the shootings aren’t fatal, they leave lasting scars: Everytown estimates that nearly one million American women have survived being shot or shot at by an intimate partner. And of course, an abuser does not have to use the gun at all for his access to firearms to become a crucial element of this threat and control.

Gun control opponents and groups like the National Rifle Association often preach that those who fear being victims of gun violence should get a gun themselves, and learn to use it. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the old adage goes. But in domestic violence situations, this proves untrue: a 2003 study found that a woman in an abusive relationship is five times more likely to be killed by her partner if there is a gun in the house. It doesn’t matter if the gun belongs to her or to him: the presence of any weapon in a home afflicted with domestic violence means that the abuser is more likely to use it to kill her.

Related: Many shootings are not called by their proper name: domestic violence | Jessica Valenti

Yet in spite of the well-established connection between private domestic violence and public mass death, and in spite of the increasing crisis of gun violence in intimate partner abuse situations, gun control is still not generally thought of as a gender justice issue. Maybe this is because of the old divide between the private and public spheres, where what happens in public places is considered to be a legitimate concern for policymakers and what happens in the home is not. Or maybe its because the prevalence of domestic violence in America more broadly is something many of us still can’t quite bring ourselves to acknowledge: it is estimated that one in three American women will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime, a figure that represents so much pain it is difficult to wrap your head around.

But ignoring the link between domestic violence and gun violence has had, literally, fatal consequences. The failure to understand domestic abuse as a precursor to public violence has led us to miss the warning signs about men who later committed public mass shootings. The failure to act on the knowledge that domestic violence that does not use weapons is a precursor to shootings has left many women dead.

After Broderick murdered three people in a home in Austin, the city’s police department tweeted out a message advising to those nearby to stay calm. “There is no risk to the general public,” the account, @Austin_Police, said.

Isn’t there?

• In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org

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