After the Texas shooting, we need to talk about masculinity and domestic violence

The Texas shooter had a history of domestic violence.

Mourners participate in a candlelight vigil for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  (CREDIT: AP/Darren Abate)
Mourners participate in a candlelight vigil for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (CREDIT: AP/Darren Abate)

The man suspected of killing 26 people and wounding 20 others with an assault rifle during a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday had a history of violence against women, like so many other men who committed mass shootings before him. The suspected shooter, Devin Kelley, who reportedly died by suicide after the shooting, was court-martialed in 2012 while he was in the U.S. Air Force for the assault of his wife and their child.

Freeman Martin, regional director from the Texas Department of Public Safety, on Wednesday also said on Monday morning that the suspect’s mother-in-law attended the church where the shooting occurred. According to Martin, Kelley had sent “threatening texts” to her. “We can’t go into details about that domestic situation that is continuing to be vetted and thoroughly investigated, but we want to get that out there, that this was not racially motivated,” Martin said at a press conference. “It wasn’t over religious beliefs. There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.”

Many of the mass shooters in recent years — even the last few months — have had histories of what appears to be emotional abuse to physical abuse against women. Stephen Paddock, the man who killed dozens of people in Las Vegas a month ago, had a history of berating his girlfriend in public, workers at his local Starbucks recounted. Paddock died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In September, Spencer Hight shot nine people and killed eight, including his wife, at a football watch party in Plano, Texas and was killed by a responding officer. Hight’s wife, Meredith Hight, told her mother that he had been violent with her twice. She had filed for divorce.

And the list goes on. James Alex Fields Jr. — who did not use a gun but committed violence against a large group of people by ramming his car into a group of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August — reportedly covered his mother’s mouth, hit her in the head, and threatened her in 2010. James T. Hodgkinson, who shot at Republican members of Congress during a Congressional baseball game in June, had a history of domestic disputes. This group of men only includes mass killers from the past few months, but there are many more.

Across ideology and apparent motive, a common thread in these shootings is the shooters’ history of violence against women and sometimes abuse of their children. The majority of mass shootings, particularly with those fewer than 10 victims, involved domestic violence, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s data looking at mass shootings from 2009 to 2016. Most mass shootings, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s definition of a mass shooting as the death of four or more victims, happen in the home.

Mass shootings of the size of the one that happened on Sunday and the one in Las Vegas in October are newsworthy for the number of people who died in each incident. But it’s important to remember that from 2009 to 20016, 1,187 victims were shot in mass shootings and 848 were killed. For domestic violence-related incidents in particular, 422 victims were killed and more than 40 percent of those killed were children. The groups of victims were smaller in many of these cases, but when looked at together, it’s clear that mass shootings involving domestic violence is a national crisis.

The nation’s gun restrictions regarding domestic abusers are lacking. Because of the “boyfriend loophole,” as it is commonly referred to, dating partners are not covered by federal prohibitions that do not let those convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence purchase or possess a firearm, unless they have a child in common with the victim or were co-habitating. Nancy Leong, law professor at the University of Denver, told Quartz said that authorities need to do more to address these loopholes. Authorities should inspect the home of a domestic-violence offender for firearms before and during their parole, she said, and ensure that for those accused of domestic violence, there is “extra scrutiny or delay associated with purchasing a gun.”

There is also the question of whether our justice system takes domestic violence seriously in the first place. For example, despite evidence that domestic violence is recurrent, most jurisdictions only have a yearlong domestic violence protection order. For comparison, orders relating to intellectual property and corporations regularly merit permanent injunctions, Jane Stoever, clinical professor of law at University of California, Irvine explained in a 2014 paper. A 2015 study looking at North Carolina District Court judges’ decisions to grant domestic violence protective orders found that in many cases, violent incidents had to reach a “certain threshold” to merit an order. The other issue with the federal law barring accused and convicted domestic abusers from getting access to new firearms is that it does not say existing firearms should be handed over, according to The Trace.

Police also regularly fail to list multiple charges in domestic violence situations. According to a 2014 study looking at police reports and prosecutorial outcomes, the baseline rates of domestic violence prosecution remain fairly low and three quarters of felony domestic violence resulted in no criminal prosecution or prosecution as a misdemeanor. For investigations that led to prosecution, 97 percent were resolved through a plea bargain. The study found that when police list four crimes in their reports, there is a 100 percent rate of conviction. But police routinely failed to include children as victims, even though they could have been listed as victims in the majority of the cases.

And as these cases make their way through the system, the victim of domestic violence is left without the free legal representation the accused receives. As Slate explained, research shows restraining orders can curb violence and that having an attorney can increase the likelihood of obtaining a restraining order from 32 percent to 86 percent. Access to an attorney is important in domestic violence situations, because abusers often control the victims’ access to money and people in low-income households suffer higher rates of abuse.

Although all of these legal barriers matter, one factor in gun violence and violence against women is a cultural one. Angela Stroud, author of Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry, said that ideas about masculinity were one reason why men felt they needed to carry firearms. Stroud stresses that although most men may never hurt their wives or family members, the emphasis on control that is part of gun culture — and masculinity — can be harmful.

“It’s about the idea that I’m a good man, trying to be a good father, and a good husband and a big part of being a good father and husband in this economically anxious time is having the means to protect my family … I’m going to keep you safe and I’m going to make sure no one messes with our family.”

Stroud added, “But when your whole identity is staked on that, then what happens when you lose control? We have this idea that people who perpetrate domestic violence are bad people, but what I would suggest is that in a culture in which your masculinity is attached to having control and being stronger than your wife … when you flip from being the big strong protector of your wife to losing control and wanting to reassert it physically, what happens? I’m not saying all these men are going to hurt their wives, but when we define masculinity in that way, it has the potential to move in that direction, and all too often, it does.”

Stroud said that masculinity should be part of the conversation about violent incidents involving guns since most of the perpetrators are men.

“Again, I’m not saying that all or even most men are perpetrators of violence, but nearly all perpetrators of violence are men,” Stroud said. “We have to be willing to face the fact that when masculinity is defined as having control and domination over others, it can become extremely dangerous when guns are readily available. People say good guys would never hurt anyone, not their wife, not children, but someone can go from being a good guy to a bad guy very quickly under these circumstances.”