In the United States, more than half of all mass shooting incidents also involve some form of domestic violence, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. While mass shootings garner major media attention, they account for only a fraction of all gun violence in the U.S., where a large share of overall gun-related deaths are also linked to domestic abuse.
As politicians look for ways to reduce gun violence, experts say there are ways to prevent abusers from having firearms that could substantially reduce the lethality of domestic violence.
Mass Shootings and Domestic Violence
While there is no broadly accepted standard for what exactly constitutes a mass shooting, for the purposes of this article, it should be understood to mean incidents in which at least four people are killed not including the shooter, the standard by which Everytown measures mass shootings.
Everytown reports that there were at least 173 mass shootings between 2009 and 2017. Domestic abuse or family violence were involved in 54 percent of those shootings, which killed nearly 500 people collectively. Further, of the 224 children killed in mass shootings in that period, 193 of them were killed in incidents related to domestic abuse
According to one study from the University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, about 4.5 million American women alive today have been threatened with a gun and nearly 1 million have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.
Another study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that abusers are five times more likely to commit femicide when a firearm is present.
Incidents of gun-related domestic violence have also taken a major toll on American children.
“Everybody is concerned about mass shootings in schools, but that’s not where child victims die,” Evan Stark, an author and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, told The Globe Post. “Child victims die in domestic violence shootings. I get cases where the man kills the wife and then kills his two or three children.”
Reporting Domestic Violence
Nearly half of all cases of domestic violence are never reported. A U.S. government report that examined data from 2006 to 2015 and estimated that while an average of 716,000 cases of domestic violence are reported each year, an additional 582,000 instances were not.
Even those figures may not tell the whole story, according to CarolAnn Peterson, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Southern California
“It’s hard to know because we don’t have actual hard numbers, we just have guesstimates based on what victims tell us,” Peterson told The Globe Post.
“We know that most victims probably have had several instances before they’ve made a report … most reports to law enforcement is a 911 from the kids or neighbors.”
Even when domestic violence is reported, there’s no guarantee a victim will be safe. Stark described one case in New Jersey where a police sergeant, Phillip Seidle had been known by colleagues to abuse his wife to the point where his department confiscated his weapon at least once, suspended him at least twice, and sent him for psychological review on three occasions.
Seidle had 20 charges of domestic abuse but no convictions, and authorities handled the domestic abuse as isolated incidents rather than an ongoing pattern of behavior, allowing him to remain on duty with his firearm. Ultimately, Seidle ended up shooting his wife to death.
Preventing Deaths Related to Domestic Abuse
April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, told The Globe Post one way the state could be better at getting guns out of the hands of domestic abusers would be through “ex parte” domestic violence restraining orders, which law enforcement can enact within hours of a victim filing for them.
“Those really can be a very quick tool and they’re designed to be that way so when there’s a crisis or there’s an immediate danger, the justice system can be nimble and act quickly,” Zeoli said. “Many states and the federal government don’t extend firearms restrictions to those ex parte orders, but some states do.”
A study Zeoli published in 2018 found while 13 states have laws banning firearms sales to individuals convicted with domestic abuse, states that extend the ban to people convicted of any violent misdemeanor experience 23 percent fewer intimate partner homicides.
The study also found states can reduce homicides further by extending the bans to dating partners and not just spouses. According to Zeoli, implementing such bans could save the lives of hundreds of victims of domestic abuse.
In April, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with a new provision that would expand law enforcement’s ability to get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. But the reauthorization has faced opposition from the National Rifle Association and has yet to move past the Senate.
Stark suggested simply restricting domestic abusers from using firearms would not be enough, however, and said more needs to be done in response to patterns associated with domestic abusers like stalking and controlling behaviors.
“Slapping or threatening a woman, threatening to withhold money … no one goes to jail in America for these crimes,” Stark said. “If we want to toughen the laws on domestic abuse, make stalking a first-class misdemeanor … don’t simply tell them they can’t use a gun, take the guns away.”
Both Stark and Peterson explained how domestic abusers exert control over their victims’ daily routine, finances, diets, wardrobe, exercise or any other aspect of their lives. Guns may be the most lethal means of threatening and intimidating women, but they’re only one of many methods by which abusers strip their victims of their dignity and freedom.
“For every woman that’s killed in a domestic violence incident, there are 50 whose liberty and dignity are being taken away in ordinary ways without firearms,” Stark said.
If you or a loved one are struggling with domestic violence, consider calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233.
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