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Domestic violence and guns: the hidden American crisis ending women's lives

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4/15/2017 Lois Beckett in New York

In one mass shooting after another, some gun control advocates and journalists see a common thread: when domestic violence is not the immediate cause of a mass shooting, it was there as a warning sign in the history of the perpetrator.

On Monday, a husband murdered his wife, an elementary school teacher, and an eight-year-old child, opening fire on them in a classroom in San Bernardino, California, before turning the gun on himself, officials said. A nine-year-old student was also injured in the attack.

A shooting with three victims does not meet most definitions of a mass shooting, though how such a shooting should be defined – and the precise numerical definition of the loss of life required – is sharply contested.

The multiple-victim shooting in an elementary school drew a massive response from local law enforcement, and nationwide media coverage. But the kind of violence that claimed the life of eight-year-old Jonathan Martinez and Elaine Smith, a 53-year-old teacher in a special needs classroom, is a daily occurrence.

Advocates say that nearly 50 American women are shot to death by former or current partners each month – more than one a day, according to national police department statistics.

“Domestic gun violence is a crisis in this country,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun control group founded after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

In all, an average of at least 760 Americans are shot to death by current or former partners each year, a 2016 Associated Press analysis of national and state law enforcement data found. These numbers are likely an undercount, since not all agencies provide data. Nearly 75% of the victims in domestic violence shootings were the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them, the Associated Press found. Shooting deaths of men were much less frequent.

Law enforcement officials said that Smith’s estranged husband, 53-year-old Cedric Anderson, said nothing as he opened fire on her in a classroom of first through fourth grade special needs students. Two students who were standing behind her were also shot, officials said.

With two victims killed and one injured, the North Park elementary school shooting does not meet the definition of a mass shooting according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit which produces a continuously updated public tally of shootings. There are multiple, contested definitions of what should be counted as a mass shooting. The Gun Violence Archive classifies them as shootings with at least four victims injured or killed, not including the perpetrator.

By at least two different tallies, though, domestic violence accounts for a substantial number of mass shooting incidents and mass shooting victims.

One updated analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, found that 54% of mass shooting incidents involved the killing of a current or former partner or family member. That analysis looked at multiple-casualty shootings over several years that left four or more people dead. A Huffington Post analysis of the Everytown data found that 64% of the victims in these mass shootings were women and children, even though women usually represent 15% of all gun homicide victims and children 7%.

A separate New York Times analysis of mass shootings in 2015 looked at a broader category of shooting incidents, examining all shootings that left four or more people injured, at least one fatally, and in which officials had identified at least one perpetrator.

Only about 1 in 10 of these mass-injury shootings involved domestic violence, the Times found. But the domestic violence shootings were more deadly than the other attacks. Domestic violence shootings represented only 11% of the incidents, but 31% of the victims who died.

Even when domestic violence does not play a direct role in high-profile mass shootings, the perpetrators of these attacks are often found to have records of domestic violence and abuse of women.

The ex-wife of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, told reporters that he had beaten her repeatedly during their marriage.

John Russell Houser, who murdered two women in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, and injured nine other people before killing himself, also had a history of violent behavior, including accusations of domestic and family violence. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people in an attack on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, also had a record of domestic violence. Elliot Rodger, who shot and stabbed six people to death and left more than a dozen injured in the college town of Isla Vista, California, in 2014, described a previous incident in which he angrily tried to push two women off a 10ft ledge at a party.

Susan Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania public health expert who studies domestic violence and guns, wrote in an email that the “the idea of domestic violence perpetration somehow being the training ground, if you will, for men who then commit mass shootings” was “intriguing”, but that there was not yet any research on the topic.

“Men who are violent toward their female partners often are violent guys in general – that might be the issue,” she wrote.

Sorenson suggested that Monday’s school shooting in San Bernardino should be understood as part of the broader trend of domestic violence attacks on women that target women while they are working, not just inside their homes.

A 2012 study of American women murdered while at work found that they were only slightly more likely to be killed as part of a crime, like a store robbery, than they were to be targeted by at work “personal relation”, most often an intimate partner.

“Intimate partner violence spills into the workplace and today it sounds like it spilled into a workplace that happened to be a school,” Sorenson wrote.

Watts, the Moms Demand Action founder, said that gun control advocates were working across the country to advance tougher domestic violence gun laws at the state level. While gun control laws have been stalled in Congress, advocates at the state level have seen progress, she said.

Since 2013, 22 states have enacted bills to keep guns away from domestic abusers, she said – and this progress had been seen in both Democratic and Republican-leaning states.

“This is an issue that red and blue lawmakers can agree on: domestic abusers shouldn’t have guns,” she said. “All countries have domestic violence. The difference is that we arm our abusers.”

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