In the wake of June’s horrific shooting at a night club in Orlando, Florida, many terms were used to describe the shooter Omar Mateen, including angry, homophobic, racist and, given his self-identified allegiance is ISIS, terrorist.
But one moniker attached to Mateen after the shooting is sticking with some researchers: wife-beater.
Given the scale of Mateen’s crime and the confusion surrounding his motives (some family members contended he hated homosexuals, others say he was simply a terrorist), the idea that Mateen had a history of domestic violence might not seem as significant as some other details of his past.
But for experts like executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Ruth Glenn, domestic violence is an oft-overlooked red flag for bigger acts of violence. The coalition defines domestic violence as a pattern of intimidation or control that ranges from physical, psychological or emotional abuse or assault.
“Terrorism is a need for an individual to have power and control. Sometimes it plays itself out in domestic violence, sometimes it’s a mass shooting, or sometimes terrorism, it’s the same mentality,” Glenn said. “It’s not just the domestic violence victims we might be protecting if we address this possible connection. Once a person who thinks like that has lost control, there’s no telling who can get hurt.”
While mass shootings with body counts like Sandy Hook (Connecticut), Orlando or Columbine (Colorado) are still statistically rare, it’s telling that so many perpetrators of mass violence have ties to domestic violence or relationship problems, said Salamishah Tillet, University of Pennsylvania associate professor and founder of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based nonviolence advocacy organization.
She pointed to Tucson, Arizona, shooter Jared Loughner, the Washington, D.C., sniper, Boston Marathon bomber Tamelan Tsanerav and many others as examples of mass violence perpetrators with connections to domestic violence.
“Our goal is to curb systemic violence within the home as a way of changing the larger culture of violence outside the home. Domestic violence is a kind of springboard like that,” Tillet said. “If you’re trying to figure out how to moderate mass violence, this is a good place to begin.”
How strong the connection is between domestic violence and mass shootings or acts of domestic terrorism like Orlando will undoubtedly be the subject of some research in the future. But for now, experts say Americans need to reframe how they think about domestic violence — not just as something that happens in bad relationships or behind closed doors, but as a warning sign to wider acts of violence.
“We know that men who commit violence often rehearse and perfect it against families first,” said Pamela Shifman, executive director of the equality nonprofit group the NoVo Foundation. “By ignoring the impact of domestic violence in our understanding of public violence, we deny ourselves an opportunity to address the wider epidemic of all violence in this country.”
While experts point out that acts of mass violence or terrorism are unique, with different factors like mental health or abuse contributing to each incident, they do know one thing for certain: Violence begets violence, whether it's a person perpetrating the violence or a child witnessing the violence.
For a large number of American men, violence is often seen, learned and perfected at home before it manifests in crimes outside the home later on.
“Violence tends to be first experienced in the home and the home is often a training ground for later actions,” Shifman said. “It is often the root justifier of all violence.”
A 2007 Washington State study examining more than 300,000 domestic violence offenders found that domestic violence was the greatest predictor of future violence among men. Categorized based on age, the subsequent offenses committed and past criminal activity, a majority of men in every category committed felonies later in life following a domestic violence conviction.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that boys who experienced domestic violence in their childhood home were four times more likely to perpetuate it themselves.
While no research has conclusively linked domestic violence to acts of mass violence like rampage shootings, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health associate professor Shannon Frattaroli said many acts of domestic violence qualify as “mass shootings” under the FBI definition, which sets a minimum of four or more people dying in an incident, excluding the shooter.
“Until very recently (domestic violence and mass shootings) occupied two separate places in people’s brains. We’re gaining an appreciation for the fact that these two types of violence are not unrelated,” Frattaroli said. “Those aren’t the kinds of ‘mass shootings’ that dominate the headlines, but if you look at mass shooters and how often did they demonstrated themselves to be violent at home, it’s not uncommon. A fair percentage are family related.”
In fact, it’s estimated at more than 50 percent.
According to a 2014 study conducted by gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, more than half of the 110 mass shootings that occurred between July 2009 and July 2014 included the murder of an intimate partner or a former or current spouse. Everyown's study also adhered to the FBI's definition of "mass shooting," but the distinction varies by interest group.
Media outlets like The Washington Post and the website shootingtracker.com, for example, use a broader definition of four or more people killed or injured in an incident, while the Congressional Research Service defines such shootings as four or more people being murdered in the incident.
And sadly, both being a victim of domestic violence and the likelihood of being fatally shot by an intimate partner are common in the U.S. According to the FBI, a woman is fatally shot by a partner, spouse or ex-spouse every 14 hours in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetimes.
As of this writing, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that there have been 357 domestic violence gun-related homicides since Jan. 1.
To many experts, the connection between gun violence and domestic violence is clear but how to address it is more elusive.
Experts recognize that nothing will ever completely stop either domestic violence or gun violence, but many agree that getting guns out of homes at risk for domestic violence is a good start to combatting community or mass violence.
“If we take guns out of the equation and not the rate of violence doesn’t change at all, we’ve still done a good thing,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. “What that does at a minimum is it reduces the consequences of the violence occurring.”
“You live to fight another day, so to speak, in the absence of a gun,” said Deborah Azreal, associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Project. “The only intervention against gun fatality that has a strong empirical basis is reducing access to guns.”
Some states, like California and Connecticut, have already stepped up their laws to prevent in-home gun violence. Each state has a version of what’s known as a firearms restraining order. The details vary by state, but generally, law enforcement, a victim or a family member can petition a judge to confiscate guns from the home of someone who is exhibiting violence toward themselves or others until the court can better evaluate the situation.
While some critics argue such confiscation is an infringement of Second Amendment rights, Wintemute says the goal is to de-escalate the situation temporarily, hopefully saving lives in the process (to date, no filings have yet been made under the California law).
Enforcement is also an issue. Restraining orders are all well and good, Wintemute said, if the law dictates that law enforcement must collect existing firearms. Currently, California is the only state that expressly states that in its restraining order law.
Frattaroli pointed to a common sticking point for many gun control advocates as an example — background checks for people purchasing a gun.
“If someone is prohibited from buying a gun, someone must forward that information to the database, which doesn’t always happen, and that’s only if a person goes to licensed firearms dealer and not on the private market,” Frattaroli said.
Others say regardless of whether gun control is effective, it’s a Band-Aid approach to a problem that begins and ends with a strong, safe home life.
“It’s almost like there’s this public and private split between violence, that somehow domestic violence is different from other violence,” Tillet said. “We have to think about violence more expansively to see the ripple effect that very often starts in the home.”
“Until families are safe and democratic, society will not be,” Shifman said. “You have to address one before you can the other.”
National Crime Victimization Survey results since 1973 found that married women with children suffer half as much domestic abuse as nonmarried women or single mothers and children of divorced or never-married mothers are at least six times more likely to be the victims of abuse.
“Paris shows that you can have many more guns laws (than the U.S.) but not necessarily stop the evil-doers from getting a gun on the black market,” said University of Denver constitutional law professor Dave Kopel. “If we looked at 17-20-year-old men in prison right now for violent gun crimes, I think we’d find it very rare that they grew up in a stable home with their biological father. Strong families are and continue to be the ultimate foundation of society in many ways. This isn’t any different."