International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is a commemoration that should be felt particularly sharply in the United States, where women are 11 times more likely to be shot and killed than those in other nations.
The role that guns play in the lives and deaths of American women is no coincidence. It’s not just lax U.S. gun laws that make it easier for perpetrators to obtain guns, but poor management of the nation’s domestic violence crisis. In particular, there’s a silent epidemic of mass shootings with domestic violence at their core, most involving perfectly legally obtained weapons.
When people think “mass shooting,” they typically think of horrific and high-profile events like the Charleston church shooting, the Oregon State shooting, and the Sandy Hook massacre. These incidents took place outside the home in environments people think of as safe, like church and school, and they involved large numbers of victims and a gunman who wasn’t even known to many of them. However, when people widen the lens on mass shootings and look at any incident involving four or more victims — whether or not they survive — the picture looks very different. By the end of October, 2015, over 300 mass shootings had taken place in the United States, and while a large percentage of the fatalities came from incidents like Charleston, the vast majority of the shootings themselves involved domestic violence situations.
EveryTown, which focuses on detailed research of gun violence and advocacy for smarter gun policy, took a look at mass shootings involving four or more fatalities between January 2009 and July 2015, and their findings revealed a very distinct pattern. Fifty percent of the victims in mass shootings were women — statistically, by contrast, women account for just 15 percent of firearm deaths in non-mass shootings, which actually make up the vast majority of gun deaths in America. Many of those women are also killed by their intimate partners. In 76 percent of the mass shooting cases, there was a clear domestic violence connection, with shooters killing partners or former partners or children, and many had prior domestic violence charges as well.
These shootings happen at home, behind closed doors, usually after an escalating pattern of violence. Abusive partners — usually men — may emotionally and physically abuse partners, children, and pets. Sometimes families or neighbors may have called for police assistance in the past, while in other cases, partners are afraid to report their concerns, or have difficulty getting out of a dangerous situation due to factors like custody disputes, limited income to rent a new home, or other factors like being afraid to leave pets behind. Risk of death in domestic violence situations increases exponentially when abusive partners have access to a gun.
Sometimes, it’s not just family members who are swept up in such shootings. In 2013, a shooting incident that started out with the murder of Justine Baez in her home ended with the shooting of several other people in her apartment complex, as they came out to see what was the matter and tried to step in to help. The situation, which had started as a violent domestic dispute, turned fatal for the victim and her well-intentioned neighbors as they tried to do the right thing. Some two thirds of women killed by guns in the United States are killed by intimate partners, underscoring the scope of this epidemic of violence — and one that runs entirely beneath the surface, as flashy, unpredictable mass shootings involving largely anonymous perpetrators tend to capture more headlines. There’s something deeply frightening about the thought of going to the movies and being shot to death by a complete stranger, but silence is often the watchword on domestic violence.
Addressing the connection between guns and domestic violence is complicated, but there are a few simple and immediate steps that can make a huge difference. In states that have background checks for gun ownership, for example, the rate of women shot to death by their partners nearly halves. With the United States taking a harder look at gun violence than ever before, bringing the issue of domestic violence to the forefront is particularly important, as is tightening down on regulations which in turn could save the lives of hundreds of women and children annually.
If you are experiencing domestic violence and need assistance, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.
Photo credit: Fort George Meade Public Affairs Office