Domestic Violence and Mass Shootings

The top half of a protection order form in the state of Ohio.

Since the Uvalde shooting, I’ve written half a dozen blog posts digging into what to do about public mass shootings, and particularly, school shootings. Something I have not yet done in earnest or detail is proffer what I would actually do. I have detailed what I would not do, or more pointedly, what I think would be ineffective for this specific problem, and I have alluded to my consternation (I don’t know what to do). But let’s turn to it. What would I do?

Domestic violence would be my primary focus. Domestic violence is one area where I think we could actually make meaningful change in stopping and preventing gun violence outcomes, even public mass shootings. After all, domestic violence plays a considerable role in mass shootings.

In a very recent article published May 31 in the open access journal, Injury Epidemiology, authors Lisa Geller, Marisa Booty, and Cassandra Crifasi examine the role of domestic violence in fatal mass shootings in the United States between 2014 and 2019.

The authors use the definition of a mass shooting as being four or more people, excluding the shooter, killed by gunfire. Admittedly, that is a broader category than the Mother Jones magazine definition I prefer of the public indiscriminate killing of four or more people, but still, this is an area of study worth delving into. The reason I point this out is because it’s worth remembering that nearly half of mass shootings in the United States are considered familicides, and as I’ve previously mentioned, public mass shootings are 0.2 percent of mass shootings. In other words, if you’re looking for domestic violence as a red flag for gun violence, you’re definitely going to find it for the former, but it gets more difficult when you’re trying to nail down such a statistically rare phenomenon.

That said, the authors explain why they think it is important to include both public and private mass shootings by arguing that by focusing only on public mass shootings, many DV-related mass shootings would be left out of the discussion, and would lead to the assumption that such shootings are random, and thus, leading to missed opportunities for intervention.

I take that as a fair point. I don’t want to overlook the role of domestic violence in mass shootings. But I still think it is the case that if you’re particularly trying to solve the issue of public mass shootings, it helps to be specific!

They broke down their methodology by three categories: 1.) DV-related, i.e., at least one victim of a mass shooting was a dating partner or a family member of the perpetrator; 2.) History of DV, i.e., the perpetrator had a history of DV, but the mass shooting was not directed toward partners or family members; and 3.) non-DV-related, i.e., the victims were not partners or family members, nor was there mention of the perpetrators having a history of DV.

Using their broader definition of mass shootings, the authors found and examined 110 mass shootings between 2014 and 2019, excluding the Las Vegas shooting as an outlier and cases where the perpetrator was unknown. In total, 65 were DV-related, 10 had a history of DV, and 35 were non-DV related mass shootings. In other words, the majority have some relationship to DV.

One way to intervene before fatal violence occurs, as suggested by a 2018 article, “Multiple Victim Homicides, Mass Murders, and Homicide-Suicides as Domestic Violence events,” would be to beef up domestic violence restraining orders to where the individual under one would be restricted from purchasing or processing a firearm for the duration of the order.

I’m just a layman reading through the research here, but there are three different types of temporary restraining orders in my state of Ohio: domestic violence temporary protection orders, domestic violence civil protection orders, and civil stalking and sexually oriented offenses protection orders.

From what I’m reading, when one fills out the TRO form, there is a section under number 13 where it states, “Respondent shall not possess, use, carry, or obtain any deadly weapon at any time while the order remains in effect in order to bring about a cessation of violence.” This is referred to as being under firearms disability. So, it seems like this is already the case in Ohio at least? I don’t know how many states have similar language.

The glaring loophole for this that I’m seeing is that Ohio law does not include a dating partner under its definition of an “intimate partner,” who could be protected by such TROs.

And at least according to this article, another glaring loophole is the implementation in practice of such orders: They have to take a would-be offender at their word that they do not have firearms at their premises. That’s if they can even serve the protection order in the first place.

There also seems to be a lot of variation among states and even within states on what judges can and can’t do, how these protection orders are enforced, and so on, but the bottom line seems clear enough: When a partner is trying to end a relationship with a long history of violence, that is often the most dangerous time for that partner, so, sadly, it’s not surprising that one act of trying to end it — filing for a TRO — precedes more violence, even fatal violence. According to one study, 11 percent of the 231 women killed by male intimates had been issued a restraining order. In fact, about one-fifth were killed two days after the order was served, and one-third within a month. Nearly half who had a restraining order had multiple orders aimed at protecting them.

I’ve talked a lot about effectiveness with respect to ending gun violence, and clearly, TROs are not as effective as they ought to be. I’ve previously written about the Supreme Court’s abhorrent Gonzales ruling in 2005 that the police have no constitutional duty to protect a person from harm. In that case, a woman practically begged police to protect her and her children from her violent husband. There was a court-issued protective order against him. The husband killed their three children.

Whether it’s the police, the judges, and/or the culture that gives rise to our expectations of police and judges, the loopholes and ineffectiveness of domestic violence protective orders is evident.

The other intervention cited by the 2018 article is that through a criminal conviction (felony and misdemeanor), those convictions carry with them firearm restrictions. But again, the bag is mixed across the board on this. Some people convicted on misdemeanor charges of domestic violence still seem to be able to retain their firearms and access to them.

As I’ve cited multiple times now, Everytown also has recommendations for intervention. Among those that differ from the two already mentioned:

  • Improving civil and criminal domestic violence records in the background check system. [They don’t explain what that looks like, or what deficiencies are in the current background check system, but on the face of it, that seems good!]
  • Requiring dealers to notify state or local law enforcement when a domestic abuser or convicted stalker attempts to buy a gun and fails a background check. [The National Instant Criminal Background check system does have a “deny” alert for when someone prohibited from buying a firearm tries to and fails the check, and it seems the case that one of the prohibitions would be a conviction, so I’m not sure where the discrepancy is here.]
  • Closing the Charleston loophole. [Gun safety advocates view the three-day waiting period expiration, wherein if the government hasn’t found a good reason to prohibit you from purchasing a firearm within three days of your attempt, they have to stop, to be a loophole. Second Amendment rights advocates argue that this is in place for good reason: So that the government can’t arbitrarily, indefinitely violate your Second Amendment rights without good reason. As is often the case, broadly speaking, I defer to restricting governmental power on this one. Infamously, this “loophole” was the case (among another issue) with Dylann Roof, but as this article points out, law enforcement can still make efforts to retrieve a gun that was sold improperly after the three days. There were two months between the sell and the shooting, so it seems like law enforcement had time.]
  • Closing the unlicensed sale loop, i.e., not allowing abusers to purchase guns from unlicensed, private sellers without a background check. [There are, of course, constitutional questions about doing that, but since I’ve been focused on effectiveness, I will only add that this seems like an incredibly difficult area to enforce, and its effectiveness doesn’t even seem that great, according to one study.]

Overall, though, I think we can make some headway with preventing some gun violence, even if it is at the margins — after all, public mass shootings are the margins — by better enforcement of existing domestic violence laws, closing the boyfriend loophole, and ensuring more clarity around whether someone under such an order must relinquish their guns or not, all without worse trade-offs or downsides.

What do you think of these measures revolving around DV? Are there areas I’ve missed related to DV that would be helpful from a policy standpoint?

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