Are mass shootings and domestic violence linked?

By Yakin Ertürk

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (2003-2009)

The gun culture in the United States has direct links with domestic violence (DV) and is part of a troubling global trend involving women as key targets. According to studies, in 2003, 50% of female homicide victims in the US were shot and killed with a gun and women in the US are 11 times more likely than in other high-income countries to be murdered through the use of a firearm. Everytown for Gun Safety, a study that used FBI data and media to analyze mass shootings in the US from January 2009 to December 2016, showed that 54% of the perpetrators of horrific mass killings had targeted family members.


According to a 2017 study by the United Nations Coordinating Action on Small Arms (CASA), femicide victims, in 40 and 70 percent of the cases worldwide, are killed by a partner or a family member. In countries where small arms are easily available, when a gun is present in a DV situation, the likelihood that a woman will be shot and killed increases fivefold.  Given this link, Everytown study notes that in the US a series of federal and state laws have been put in place to help keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, but the issue is far from being addressed.


On November 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire at a church outside San Antonio, Texas, killing and wounding many people. According to Air Force authorities Kelley— who joined the military in 2009 — was court-martialed in 2012 on two charges of assault. He was convicted of fracturing his baby stepson’s skull and assaulting his first wife. He was confined for a year, given a bad conduct discharge and reduced in rank. As with previous mass killings, experienced in the US, the incident fueled the long standing controversy over gun ownership; proponents of the Second Amendment resisting and the pro-regulation proponents advocating for measures to limit access to guns. The US President, asked whether background check system needed improvement, responded that this was not gun issue but a mental health issue, therefore, it wouldn’t have made any difference!


While this controversy lingers, the Texas shooting highlights yet another aspect of the problem. Reportedly, the military had failed to enter Kelley’s DV incident into a database that would have made it illegal for him to buy a gun. This provoked a debate on whether mass shootings and DV are linked and if the atrocity could have been prevented if the gunman’s history of DV had been properly followed up.



Posing the problem as one of causality may miss the point. The linkage argument does not necessarily presuppose causality but rather implies intersectionality. The question then is: where, when and how do the two phenomena intersect? In view of our current understandings of violence, several points of intersection immediately come to mind: (i) violence is a strategy to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the private and public domains; (ii) violence is not an isolated phenomenon, there is a cycle and continuum of violence; and (iii) small arms are often present in incidents of violent assaults, including femicides. Exploring into areas of intersectionality can provide more nuanced answers concerning the linkage between the two forms of violence and reveal further areas of inquiry as well as new entry points for timely interventions geared toward prevention.


Had the authorities complied with the legal obligation to enter Kelley’s DV incident into a database that would have made it illegal for him to buy a gun, perhaps the Texas atrocity could have been prevented? Although we will never know for sure, such questions need to be taken seriously. Dismissing the issue as inconclusive simply evades the obligation to diligently respond to a deadly crisis.


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