By Scott Downes
In June the FBI released a report that points to connections between domestic violence and public shootings, and reinforced the idea that ready access to guns contributes to a unique public health threat, particularly for women.
The FBI study concluded that 62 percent of active shooters who inflicted gun violence in public spaces over a 13-year span had a history of abusive and harassing behavior, such as bullying or workplace intimidation. Sixteen percent had a history of intimate partner violence, and 11 percent had engaged in stalking-related behavior.
“Domestic violence is often a thread that pulls through public shootings,” wrote Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots advocacy organization that prioritizes common-sense gun reforms.
Between 2009 and 2016, the majority of mass shootings were related to domestic or family violence, according to research by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. In 54 percent of those shootings, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner, or a family member. As well, in 42 percent of mass shootings (defined by Everytown for Gun Safety as four or more people killed by a firearm in a single incident), the shooter demonstrated at least one type of “red flag” behavior, such as previous acts of violence, attempted violence, threats of violence or violating protective orders.
“Domestic violence is one of those red flags,” Watts wrote.
This was the case with the shooter at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in 2015, who killed three people. And the shooter at the congressional baseball practice in June 2016. And the shooter at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. And the shooter at the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And the shooter in Las Vegas on the October night where 59 people were killed and more than 500 were injured.
And this past February, evidence suggests it was even the case with the shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“Access to firearms by domestic abusers is and has been a threat to women's and children's health and safety, as well as to public health, for many decades, long before the rise of modern-day public mass shootings,” said Amy Miller, executive director of Violence Free Colorado (formerly the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
A 2003 Johns Hopkins-led study of femicide in 11 U.S. cities found that women are over five times more likely to be killed if a domestic abuser has access to a gun. More than 80 percent of people killed with guns annually by intimate partners are women, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. And, in a study by the pro-gun safety advocacy group Violence Policy Center, nearly two-thirds of the 928 female homicide victims studied were fatally shot by a male intimate partner.
Many advocates working on public health, gun safety and anti-domestic abuse argue that anyone with a history of domestic violence should not own or have access to a gun.
* * *
Existing federal and state laws are in place that prohibit some domestic abusers from having guns. Those may help reduce mass shootings and other public gun violence, though it’s difficult to analyze shootings that did not occur.
Some public policy changes are encouraging and suggest more widespread awareness and understanding of these public health and safety implications. At least 25 states have strengthened domestic violence gun safety laws in recent years. And in 2017 alone, eight states passed new domestic-violence gun laws—most of which were signed into law by Republican governors.
Loopholes still remain. The National Rifle Association continues to entrench itself and its policy positions. And there are huge gaps in existing federal, state and local laws that allow for easy access to guns, not the least of which is the so-called “boyfriend loophole”: While convicted domestic abusers who are or were married to their victim are prohibited from buying or owning a gun under federal law, this does not always apply to boyfriends, dating partners or stalkers.
At least 27 states, including Colorado, have not completely closed the boyfriend loophole. And 37 states still do not require people prohibited from purchasing a gun due to domestic violence charges to relinquish guns they already own. That said, Colorado does require guns to be relinquished if there is a conviction on such charges, even misdemeanors; and also when a person is the subject of a domestic violence protective order.
Colorado has made other substantial progress on gun safety policy. The state now requires background checks for all guns and requires a permit to carry a concealed handgun in public. However, Colorado does not require hands-on, “live fire” safety training to carry a concealed handgun in public—only an online class.
Of 67 key gun safety laws tracked by Everytown, 26 are in place in Colorado; and of the 14 such laws pertaining to guns and domestic violence, Colorado has only 6 in place. Regardless of the vast array of approaches states have used legislatively to try to remove guns from those who commit domestic violence, closing the boyfriend loophole remains one of the most concrete methods. Yet there are no known plans by Colorado legislators to address it. To the contrary: the day after the Parkland shooting this past February, a Republican-controlled Colorado Senate committee advanced a bill on a 3-2 party-line vote that would allow concealed carry without a permit.
“The idea behind constitutional carry is that you should be able to carry a concealed handgun without applying for government permission or paying an expensive fee, if you are otherwise legally able to carry a firearm,” Rep. Tim Neville said in introducing the bill. “Law abiding Coloradans already can carry openly in most parts of the state, except Denver, and they shouldn’t have to jump through additional hoops, or pay what amounts to a tax, because they choose to carry their means of self-defense in a pocket or a purse or otherwise out of sight.”
The bill passed in the Senate, but failed to advance out of a House committee.
Later in the 2018 legislative session, a bill was introduced to pass what’s known as a “red flag” law that would allow law enforcement or families to seek approval from a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone experiencing a mental illness who is believed to be dangerous. While the bill garnered bipartisan support from legislators, law enforcement officials and student advocates, it ultimately failed in a Senate committee on a party-line vote.
At the federal level, the Trump Administration is quietly easing gun safety regulations while congressional Republicans are advancing a push for concealed-carry reciprocity, which would allow people with a concealed-carry permit to carry a gun in any state. This would effectively nationalize the weakest state gun-safety laws and allow people to carry hidden, loaded guns in public, including in national parks and other public lands.
Some view concealed-carry reciprocity as a particular threat to women, given the link between access to guns and domestic violence. According to Pew Research, only 46 percent of Americans support allowing people to carry concealed guns in more places, while 81 percent oppose allowing concealed carry without a permit.
* * *
While the connection between guns and domestic violence is clear, looking at any single aspect of gun violence can betray the totality of the problem.
Each year, an average of 36,383 Americans are killed by guns. Approximately two-thirds of that average—22,274 deaths—are from suicide, and 12,830 are homicides. (The number of firearm-related homicides increased 31 percent from 2014 to 2016, when 14,415 such incidents occurred.)
That means on an average day, 96 people—including seven children and teenagers—die from guns in the United States. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that guns are the third-leading cause of death among U.S. children, and the second leading cause of death from injury. More than 4 percent of U.S. children have witnessed a shooting in the past year.
Gun violence is cited as a contributing factor in shorter life expectancy in the U.S. relative to other developed countries. And gun violence also imposes an enormous financial burden on an annual basis, reaching $229 billion in 2012 from direct and indirect costs such as hospital and health care expenses, lost wages and employment, disability and other factors, according to an analysis by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, reported Mother Jones.
School shootings and other public displays of gun violence are a highly visible part of the problem. Shootings involving police, intimate partner violence and suicides are often less visible. Regardless, the full scope of gun violence is not unlike other social and public health challenges: it can affect anyone; it is potentially avoidable; and it disproportionately harms people who are not straight white men.
By virtually every measure, a higher burden of gun violence falls on women, people of color, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, as well as other historically marginalized groups.
Black men are 10 times more likely to be killed by gun homicide than white men. And data find that gun violence disproportionately impacts Black children and teens, who are four times more likely to be killed with guns than white children and teens.
Fatal shootings by police are another aspect of gun violence that affects different communities in different ways. More than 3,000 people in the U.S. have been fatally shot by police since the start of 2015—an average of almost three every day, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. As of the middle of August, 640 people have been shot and killed by police so far this year.
Black Americans, as well as Hispanic and Latino and Native Americans, are disproportionately harmed and killed by police shootings.
Additionally, an estimated one-third to one-half of all people killed by police have a disability, according to a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“Most of those people, especially in cases where police clearly misused lethal force, turn out to also be marginalized by race, class, orientation, or other factors that intensify vulnerability,” wrote David Perry, the co-author of the report.
In 2017, 31 people—at least 13 of whom were people of color—were shot and killed by police in Colorado. That's the 7th highest number of fatal police shootings by state, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
Even the manner in which victims and survivors of gun violence are viewed and treated is subject to gender and racial biases.
“It is interesting to note the difference in support for the kids in FL versus the kids in Black Lives Matter,” tweeted author Roxane Gay. “I say that with full admiration for the kids in FL, to survive such a trauma and fight for everyone to be safer. But that’s also what was happening in Ferguson and beyond.”
“One of the challenges in this whole movement is the ones who get on the front page are the more affluent kids who are shot in their schools,” said Madison Rose, a student at Regis University and vice president of Never Again Colorado, a youth-run organization dedicated to ending gun violence. “But the everyday domestic violence victims, the police brutality victims, and victims of hate crimes, they’re not necessarily on the front page of People Magazine or USA Today or The Washington Post. You don’t see those faces.”
And on some foundational level, the problem with so many of these layers of gun violence comes back to the entitlement of men in power, who over time have codified a lethal privilege into a perceived right that supersedes the health and safety of everyone else.
“In America, the eternal subtext of acts of mass violence is toxic masculinity. If you look hard enough, it’s always there,” wrote Melissa Jeltsen, who has covered the connection between mass shootings and domestic violence for the last five years. “The men who commit mass-casualty atrocities are almost unfailingly abusers, empowered by easily accessible firearms that lend them the exhilarating feeling of control that they so desperately desire.
“But when we see violence against women as simply a red flag for future violence against others, it’s indicative of a bigger, more urgent problem,” Jeltsen continued. “Twenty-four years after the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law, domestic violence is still overlooked and excused, perceived as a private affair instead of a public health issue.”
“Domestic violence is largely not perceived as a public health issue,” Miller agreed. “I think that is in part due to the lack of resources directed towards the prevention of domestic violence, through which a public health approach would become more broadly used and known by the public.”
“I do think it is also a shame how little attention domestic violence has received in the #metoo movement,” Miller continued. “Just as men tend to feel entitled to do what they want to in private spaces, they also feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over public spaces, which is why I think they do things like catcalling, other forms of public harassment of women, [and] mass shootings.
"It’s really all interconnected and rooted in white male privilege, entitlement, toxic masculinity, racism, sexism and misogyny.”
* * *
On March 24, 10 days after the national student walkout, at least 1.2 million people joined some 450 marches across the country to keep the movement against gun violence going.
Tens of thousands of those were gathered in Civic Center Park in downtown Denver. Behind the Greek Amphitheatre, student organizers passed out handwritten signs to fellow students and distributed black t-shirts with white lettering that stated “We Can End Gun Violence.”
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their families waited in school colors in a temporary staging area. One dad prepped students for the crowds and suggested if they get nervous about speaking that they take a minute to pet the therapy dog, a chihuahua named David Bowie.
Madison Rose was fed up after the Parkland shooting and decided to get involved in a bigger way. She started a Facebook page to help organize an event, and joined with other students and leaders from Never Again Colorado to make the March for Our Lives a reality in Denver.
“I’ve honestly been feeling this for a really long time, this frustration, this anger,” Rose said, before speaking at the march. “There’ve been amazing orgs like Colorado Ceasefire for a long time, but there was no big action like we’re seeing today at the march. There was no outlet for that.”
“I’m really glad that finally we’re going to have our voices heard,” continued Rose. “We’re opening the line of dialogue for both sides. We want to stop arguing, and we want to ensure the safety of students in our schools. This is not about taking away guns. This is not a partisan issue. This is about public safety.”
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was shot and killed at Columbine in 1999, talked with organizers and volunteers before taking the podium. Mauser often wears his son’s shoes when he speaks about gun violence, and donated a pair of Daniel’s shoes to a demonstration in March at the U.S. Capitol to illustrate how many children have died from gun violence.
Later, in front of the amassed crowd on the other side of the amphitheatre structure, Tom said that the experiment with easy access to guns has been a miserable failure.
“The status quo is killing us,” he said when he spoke. “It’s time for a change.”
“This generation is strong and we are brave,” said Rose when asked what she wanted elected officials to take away from the march. “We’re not going to back down, we’re not going to give up on our fight. We hope they don’t go soft on public safety, and that they hear our voices finally.
“We’re done with this.”