Parents in the US fear mass shootings, but kids are three times as likely to be shot at home
Correction: This story originally included an inaccurate detail related to one woman's application for a domestic violence restraining order. The information on Alison Kessler has been updated.
Angela Brooks will never forget the FaceTime call from her 10-year-old granddaughter, Nie’Mae.
“She said, ‘Granny, please help us. Mama’s dead,’” recalled Brooks, 58, a nurse in St. Louis.
Brooks didn’t believe it. Then Nie’Mae turned the phone around to show her a body on the floor. It was Brooks’ daughter, Chasity Cooper, 40. She had been shot by her ex-boyfriend, Nie’Mae said.
Lying a few feet away was the lifeless body of Doryan Bryant, Cooper’s 6-year-old daughter, known as “Pig” by the family because of her chubby cheeks. Nie’Mae and her sister Zoryia, 16, also had been shot but would survive.
“No mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, brother, should ever see their child laying in a pool of their own blood,” Brooks said, her voice straining through tears.
More than two-thirds of parents worry a shooting could happen at their children’s school, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. But home is a far more dangerous place for kids.
In the five years ending in 2022, at least 866 kids 17 and younger were shot in domestic violence incidents, according to an analysis by The Trace of data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive; 621 of them died. In that same time frame, 268 children were shot at school, 75 of them fatally, according to an analysis of data from the CHDS School Shooting Safety Compendium, a federally funded tracker launched after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
All told, three times as many children were shot in domestic violence incidents as in school shootings and eight times as many died. The majority of those children were intentionally shot by a parent, stepparent or guardian – the very people expected to protect them.
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Much of the violence was hidden, often playing out inside homes across America and receiving a fraction of the media coverage dedicated to school shootings. The median age of the victims over the five-year period was 10; 167 of the victims were younger than 5. One was a newborn.
In Miami Lakes, Florida, on Feb. 8, 2022, a man killed his 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter an hour after posting a photo of the three of them on Facebook. The children’s mother found their bodies.
In Lawrenceville, Georgia, on April 17, 2021, a man killed his 11-year-old daughter and then himself. Hours earlier, he had texted his brother that he was upset that his girlfriend went to a party without him.
In Yoder, Colorado, on June 23, 2020, a man held his three children at gunpoint and asked them, “Do you want me to kill you?” before fatally shooting his 6-year-old son in the neck.
In New Paris, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 2019, a man killed his wife and 12-year-old stepdaughter with a gun he bought that morning. The judge who sentenced him to life in prison called his actions “pure evil.”
The first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly deadly, with family tensions on the rise and children separated from school and other outside activities where problems at home can make their way to authorities. The number of kids under 18 shot in domestic incidents rose 61% from 2019 to 2020, far higher than the overall increase in child shooting victims over that period (35%).
The height of the pandemic was precisely when Chasity Cooper chose to leave her boyfriend: Oct. 10, 2021.
The day before, Cooper had called her mother to tell her she had finally decided to end her four-month relationship with Joseph Jones, 40, which had been marked by infidelity and abuse. All she wanted to do was pay Jones money she owed him and say goodbye; then she would leave for Atlanta, where she had arranged to stay with relatives.
Brooks told her to go and never look back. “I can always come fly to see you,” she remembers saying that day on the phone, “but the only way you’re coming back here is in a body bag.” They agreed that Cooper and her daughters would spend the night at Brooks’ house before they set off for Atlanta. “I’ll order pizza,” Brooks told her daughter.
She never showed up.
Nie’Mae later told police that Jones had been arguing with Cooper when he shot her, then burst into the bedroom and aimed his gun at the children. “Why are you all still here in my house?” she remembered him saying. “Your mama is dead.”
He opened fire, nicking Zoryia in the hand and elbow and striking Doryan four times in the stomach. Nie'Mae was grazed when she threw herself at Jones, startling him long enough to push him out of the room and barricade the door with a dresser – a feat of strength that Brooks calls “God’s doing.”
When police arrived, they found Jones sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette; he told them that it had been Cooper’s “time to go.”
Jones was charged with murder and assault. Brooks believes he found out about Cooper’s plan to leave, but her daughters say their final argument was over how messy he thought the house was.
“That ain't nothing to kill a child over,” Brooks said.
Domestic violence is especially lethal for kids
In America, if you’re shot by another person, you’re much more likely to survive than die. Two-thirds of gunshot victims make it home.
For child victims of domestic gun violence, those outcomes are flipped. Seventy-two percent of the children in The Trace dataset died of their wounds.
Methodology: How The Trace did its analysis
Child domestic violence shootings are more lethal than other types of gun violence partly because the shooter has chosen the victims, not opened fire indiscriminately.
“If someone intends to kill their family, they will make targeted shots and make sure they kill,” said April Zeoli, an associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
When attackers share a home with their victims, they also are more likely to shoot at close range. In some instances, perpetrators killed their entire families and then themselves, a phenomenon known as “family annihilation.”
Often a crisis, or a mental health breakdown – or both – played a role.
A man in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, fatally shot his wife, their six children, and himself last October. The couple had been under severe financial stress, family members said. Based on a bankruptcy filing from 2020, both were chronically unemployed, receiving public assistance and burdened by student loan debt.
“Among what little personal property they had to their names were nine firearms,” the local Tulsa World reported. His parents said his personality changed after a concussion from a workplace injury several years ago.
On June 12, 2020, a woman in Monroe, Louisiana, killed a neighbor outside her apartment complex before heading to her apartment and fatally shooting her four children, ages 5 months to 12 years, before turning the gun on herself. She was reportedly in the midst of a mental health crisis and had grappled with behavioral problems for years but did not disclose that during a gun background check five days earlier.
The young victims frequently were collateral damage in domestic violence targeted at romantic partners. Jordyn Lawson, senior director of residential services at Genesis Women's Shelter in Dallas, said her clients are often threatened with guns by their abusers.
“‘I'm going to kill you, I'm going to shoot you’ is a very common threat that’s made in order to maintain power and control,” Lawson said. “There is no better way to control somebody than to literally control whether they live or die.”
If a woman is being threatened, her children are probably in danger as well.
“We know that domestic violence toward the mother is the No. 1 indicator of child abuse,” Lawson said. “So anytime there is violence in the home, we know that the children are unsafe.”
Some abusers shoot their children to punish current or former romantic partners, said Bethany Backes, an assistant professor in the Violence Against Women Faculty Cluster Initiative at the University of Central Florida. The survivors are left to mourn their lost families alone.
That was the case for Tyanna Brown, who arrived at her home in Lancaster, California, in November 2021 to find her four children – ages 1, 2, 7 and 11 – shot to death, along with her mother, who had been babysitting.
The children’s father, a licensed security guard with an expired concealed carry permit, was arrested and charged with five counts of murder. Neighbors heard Brown yelling “My babies are dead!” after she discovered the bodies and called 911. She had filed for divorce five months earlier.
Several of the shootings sprang from child custody battles, and some even occurred during visitation handoffs. Domestic violence experts say this is because abusers thrive on control, and the breakup of a family symbolizes the ultimate loss of control.
“He can't do anything about the judicial system,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a survivor of domestic gun violence herself. “So the power that he loses, it feels different. It feels really all-encompassing. What ends up happening is you have a deeper type of escalation.
“It never surprises me, sadly to say, that in some instances the children are killed. It's to hurt that victim: ‘You will never, ever have power. You will never ever control. And I am willing to annihilate my children, your children to watch you suffer.’”
In May 2021, a man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, man shot his 4-year-old son, Greyson Kessler, to death and turned the gun on himself. He had picked Greyson up for a visit two days earlier. Greyson’s mother, Alison Kessler, had primary custody.
She had applied for a domestic violence restraining order against Greyson’s father, citing threatening texts. The protection order would have prevented him from seeing his son, but a judge denied it, citing a lack of evidence.
When Kessler didn’t hear from Greyson or his father over the next two days, she filed an emergency order to have the boy removed from his care. “The Mother is justifiably concerned the minor child may be injured in the Father's care,” her petition said.
By then it was too late. Greyson was dead.
The pandemic exacerbated child domestic violence shootings
Child domestic violence shootings surged at nearly twice the rate of other shootings of children during the first year of the pandemic, according to The Trace’s analysis. Experts found that shocking but not surprising.
They pointed to a host of possible reasons, chief among them the pandemic-related surge in gun sales, which brought millions more firearms into American homes – 19 million in 2020 alone. At the same time, families were stuck indoors together, and business closures generated financial stress, a potentially deadly mix in already abusive situations.
“All of these elements came together to make for a situation in which it was a very dangerous time to be at home,” said Shannon Frattaroli, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Shelter-in-place orders meant to keep the public safe from a potentially deadly virus had the unintended consequence of exposing kids to deadly violence at home.
On April 22, 2020, an Atlanta man shot his stepson, 16-year-old De’onte Roberts, after the teen defied his mother’s order to quarantine at home with the family. When he returned, he kicked in the front door, touching off a brawl that ended with his death and his stepfather’s arrest.
Local police urged calm amid the added stressor of forced proximity.
“When the pressure gets hot, you just have to take a deep breath and you have to separate,” then-Atlanta Police Captain D’Andrea Price said at the time. “People are on top of each other right now.”
The presence of guns in an abusive household raises the likelihood of homicide by 500%, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“If there's a domestic violence incident, and there's a gun right there – easily picked up, usually not stored safely – that increases the chances that what might have been a physically abusive incident becomes a homicide,” said Jacquelyn Campbell, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who’s heading up a study on the role of guns in domestic violence.
Backes, at University of Central Florida, says that during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, kids experiencing abuse “didn't have the school system to flag anything that might be concerning. It wasn't like a teacher could pull a kid to the side and see what's going on.”
Further compounding the problem was the virus itself, which may have prevented police officers from entering homes during domestic violence incidents.
“Because of the changes in rules they’d have people come outside, so the abusive partner could very much control the situation,” said Backes, who has worked closely with law enforcement in her research career and just wrapped up a study on COVID-19’s effect on police procedures and protocols.
Shortly after the first lockdowns in March 2020, the Vera Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy group focused on criminal justice issues, released guidance for law enforcement officers that included limiting their arrest warrants to violent crime suspects and directing people to submit police reports remotely. At the same time, domestic violence complaints to police soared, according to a survey of law enforcement agencies by NBC News a month into the pandemic.
A nationwide housing and eviction crisis also has made it increasingly difficult to move, leaving victims stuck with their abusers.
“Then you have the complexity of survivors of domestic violence reaching out wanting help but not having anywhere safe to go to long-term – independent, stable housing,” said Lawson, the Dallas victims’ advocate. “You have situations where people are almost being forced to stay in abusive homes, because at least it's four walls and a roof.”
Kids in states with weak gun laws face heightened risk.
Some states are deadlier than others for domestic violence-related shootings of children.
The shooting last May at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which happened right before summer vacation, was the nation’s deadliest K-12 shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Parents there said they were terrified at the prospect of sending their kids back to school in the fall.
The state allocated $400 million for school safety initiatives, and the Texas Education Agency responded with a host of proposals, including silent panic alarms and auto-locking doors. None of the proposals forwarded by the Republican-led state deal with regulating guns.
Uvalde was one of two shootings in Texas last year that resulted in the injury or death of a K-12 student during school hours or at official after-school events, according to The Trace’s analysis. But in 2022 alone, there were 17 shootings of children in domestic violence incidents across the state. Over the past five years, there have been a total of eight school shootings in Texas – and 80 domestic violence shootings of children.
In fact, Texas had more child domestic violence shootings than any other state from 2018 to 2022. It also has weak gun surrender laws for abusers, a lack of safety training, weak or nonexistent gun storage requirements, and a permissive gun culture with strong patriarchal elements, according to academics, law enforcement officials and victims’ advocates.
Texas is also one of 29 states that don’t require background checks on private gun sales. A federal court recently struck down a state law prohibiting 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying concealed guns. And permitless carry took effect there in 2021, so residents can carry guns in public without having been vetted.
“We support the right of every law-abiding American to be able to have a weapon to defend themselves,” Gov. Greg Abbott said when signing the permitless carry into law.
Self-defense is the chief argument for relaxing gun rights, and gun rights advocates and the gun lobby claim that firearms are used in self-defense as many as 2.5 million times a year, a figure that’s hotly contested. But decades of research has found that having more guns around results in more shootings.
Even a public tragedy like Uvalde hasn’t changed that in Texas, where guns remain a political lightning rod.
“We’ve heard so many times from them about this whole good-guy-with-a-gun concept. Well, a whole lot of good that did us in Uvalde,” said Texas State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents the south Texas town and has joined the grieving families in advocating for gun control. “We had over 390 good guys with guns, and they didn't do a damn thing to help the remaining children that were in there.”
Ricardo Rodriguez, the Hidalgo County District Attorney from 2015 to 2022, sought to combat a pandemic-related spike in domestic violence in the fall of 2020 by unveiling an app that let victims report incidents to law enforcement.
“Weapons are more accessible to a whole lot of people,” Rodriguez said. “It's the truth. I don't care who gets offended: You give more access to people that can carry a gun openly in public, obviously you're going to have more situations where guns are involved.”
Lawson blames a number of cultural factors for the state’s larger number of domestic shootings of children and higher rates of domestic violence in general.
“Nationally, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime,” she said. “But in Texas, it’s actually 1 in 3 women. There are definitely complexities that lay over that. We are in a Bible Belt state, so you have really rigid gender roles.”
Some experts suggested that the weak social safety net found in many Republican-led states, particularly low unemployment benefits and unaffordable health care, was an added stressor during the pandemic that might have exacerbated domestic violence.
“When unemployment hits places with fewer social supports, it hits really hard,” said Frattaroli of Johns Hopkins, whose work focuses on the intersection of domestic violence and guns.
“When you have a situation in which people are in despair, are desperate, don't know what the future holds, don't know how they're going to pay their rent or put food on the table, and you put them in a context where guns are often seen as a solution and they’re readily available, it's easy to imagine how that is where people turn.”
Texas, which has not adopted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, had 103 child domestic violence shooting victims over the past five years. Florida, which offers only 12 weeks of unemployment benefits – the fewest in the country – and caps them at $275 a week, had 69 victims, the second-highest tally in The Trace’s analysis.
Even when taking population into account, those states’ tallies are high: California, the most-populous state, had 47 victims over the five-year period. New York, the fourth most-populous state, had 17.
Missouri, where Chasity Cooper and her daughter Doryan were killed, has among the weakest gun laws in the country. In 2007, the state repealed its handgun permitting law, which required gun buyers to undergo extensive background checks before buying a firearm. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy found that over the next five years, Missouri’s murder rate rose 14%.
The state relaxed its laws even further, lowering the concealed carry age to 19 in 2014, then dropping its permit and training requirement altogether in 2017.
In 2021, the Republican-led state legislature took even more drastic action, passing the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which prohibits local and state police from enforcing federal gun laws.
The policy, part of a broader effort to resist federal regulations, complicates efforts to remove guns from domestic abusers, whose gun infractions are usually referred to federal authorities. (Earlier this month, the Second Amendment Preservation Act was struck down by a federal court; the Missouri attorney general has said he will appeal.)
It has been a little over two years since 6-year-old Doryan Bryant and her mother, Chasity Cooper, were killed, an act of unconscionable violence that broke apart their immediate family. Nie’Mae, now 12, lives with an aunt in Texas. Zoryia, now 18, lives with her grandmother, Angela Brooks, in St. Louis and graduated from high school this past spring. Cooper also left behind three kids in their 20s.
Both of the young girls grapple with physical injuries and psychological trauma. Nie’Mae is starting to have flashbacks. “No kid should have seen their mama …” Brooks said, trailing off. When asked what she misses most about Doryan, Brooks says it’s her “big, beautiful smile” and her after-school phone calls, when they’d chat about her day in kindergarten.
“She didn’t even make it to first grade,” Brooks said, adding that the little girl wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, “like me.”
Brooks says she gets through the day by holding fast to her faith and her family. She has seven surviving children, 31 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. But this past holiday season, the second one she spent without Chasity and Doryan, all she noticed was the two empty seats at the table. She says she’s fortunate it wasn’t four.
“I think his goal,” she said, “was to kill all of them.”
The Trace is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to improving public understanding of gun violence, increasing accountability and identifying solutions.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School shootings worry parents, but guns are more dangerous at home