If media don't point out the clear connection between domestic abuse and mass shootings, they're not doing their job

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

On November 5, a 26-year-old man used a military-style assault weapon to murder at least 26 people in a small, rural church in Sutherland Springs, TX. Media soon after reported that the shooter belonged not just to the growing club of perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States, but also to the often overlapping group of violent men who quietly unleash terror, frequently undetected, on women and children in their own homes.

Every media outlet that reports on the Sutherland Springs church shooting must, of course, include the critical details that the shooter was previously charged in military court for reports he abused his wife and stepchild, that multiple ex-girlfriends have publicly said he stalked them, and that law enforcement are now pointing to other signs the shooting was related to a “domestic situation.” But that alone is not enough to serve the public. Media reports must also accurately reflect the myriad horrendous examples and heartbreaking statistics that rightly illuminate domestic violence as both an epidemic unto itself and “the canary in the coal mine for mass shootings.”

Here are the facts that together paint a bloody portrait of a society in which harm perpetrated against family members -- most often women and girls -- contorts itself and grows, unchecked, until a man morphs from terrorizing a family or intimate partner to terrorizing entire communities:

  • Five years before the shooter used an AR-15 rifle to murder at least 26 children and adults in a small Texas church yesterday, he was court-martialed on charges of assaulting his wife and child, fracturing his infant stepson's skull. He had also reportedly stalked multiple ex-girlfriends, including one girlfriend whom he dated when he was 18 and she was just 13 years old. In a press conference on November 6, officials said the shooting was considered likely related to a “domestic situation.”
  • Before the perpetrator of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history murdered 58 people and wounded more than 500 at a Las Vegas, NV, concert just last month, he was known for verbally abusing his girlfriend in public.
  • Months before a shooter opened fire in a Nashville, TN, church in September, murdering one woman and injuring eight other people, his girlfriend twice reported him for domestic violence.
  • In April, a man entered a classroom in a San Bernardino, CA, elementary school and used a revolver to kill his estranged wife, Karen Smith, and her 8-year-old student Jonathan Martinez, injure another child, and terrorize a community before killing himself.
  • The neo-Nazi who drove a car into anti-racist protestors, murdering activist Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others in Charlottesville, VA, in August, had reportedly abused his disabled mother. (He did not use a gun, though, to commit his terrorist act.)
  • Years before a shooter opened fire on a congressional baseball game in June, he was arrested for punching his foster daughter’s friend in the face and firing a shotgun at her boyfriend.
  • A year before a shooter in January murdered five people and injured 45 others at the Fort Lauderdale, FL, airport, he was charged with physically assaulting his girlfriend.
  • Before the perpetrator of the now-second-deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history murdered 49 people and injured 58 others -- almost all of whom identified as Latinx, and many of whom were openly LGBTQ -- in an Orlando, FL, gay nightclub in the summer of 2016, his ex-wife told media he had beaten her, confiscated her paychecks, and isolated her in their home.
  • Before a shooter killed three people and injured nine others outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO, in November 2015, he had been reported by multiple ex-partners for domestic abuse. He was also arrested in 1992 on sexual assault charges.
  • The man who opened fire at a movie theater in Lafayette, LA, in July 2015, murdering two women and injuring eight other people, had been reported for domestic violence seven years earlier. In 2008, his family sought a protective order against him after he had made threatening statements aimed at his daughter, wife, and other family members.
  • Before killing six people and injuring seven others in a stabbing and shooting spree in Isla Vista, CA, in May 2014, the perpetrator had created a manifesto detailing his hatred of and violent thoughts toward women, and had previously harassed or attacked women, couples, and one of his roommates. Before committing the random shootings, the perpetrator stabbed and killed two of his roommates and a friend.
  • The shooter who murdered 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, CT, elementary school in 2012 first shot and killed his mother in the home they shared. He had reportedly threatened her prior to the shooting, and subsequent investigations suggest he may have harbored disturbing and abusive thoughts about children.
  • The perpetrator of the now-third-deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, who murdered 32 at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, VA, in 2007, had previously been reported for stalking and harassing two women.

There are undoubtedly more perpetrators of mass shootings, since forgotten, who have rehearsed violence on the bodies of their intimate partners or relatives.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, in more than half of U.S. mass shootings from 2009 through 2016, “the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member.”

There are also countless more mass shooters who commit acts of terror within the confines of their homes, and whose terror remains relatively private. A mass shooter is commonly considered to be any individual who uses a firearm to kill at least four people. By this definition, it’s estimated that 70 percent of mass shooting incidents occurred in homes, and 57 percent of mass shooting incidents involved a current or former intimate partner or family member.

As HuffPost senior reporter Melissa Jeltsen, who frequently writes about domestic violence and public safety, wrote: “The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence. It is one of men (yes, mostly men) targeting and killing their wives or ex-girlfriends or families. The victims are intimately familiar to the shooters, not random strangers.”

One study published in 2016 found that among women living in the United States at the time, “about 4.5 million have had an intimate partner threaten them with a gun and nearly 1 million have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.” A 2016 Associated Press analysis of FBI data concluded that “an average of 760 Americans were killed with guns annually by spouses, ex-spouses or dating partners between 2006 and 2014.”

Of course, for every responsible report that highlights the deadly connections between domestic abuse, firearm possession, and mass shootings, there is another from the National Rifle Association’s own media outlets working to muddy the waters, or a right-wing media campaign to obscure this clear connection with claims about mental health. For every media effort to illuminate legal efforts that would keep firearms out of the hands of abusers, there is an attempt at counteractive disinformation perpetrated by those who benefit from laxer laws. Or there is nothing at all -- just silence.

And that is precisely why these statistics and examples should be a major element of news reports about the Sutherland Springs shooting. And when more people are murdered in the next mass shooting, wherever it will be -- because federal inaction is endemic, and mass firearm violence in the U.S. has become a horrifying script doomed to be repeated, and then cloaked in thoughts and prayers -- they ought to be included again.

These numbers and stories ought to be repeated as often as mass violence is perpetrated by men who have first practiced such terror on women and families. Because in the absence of stronger legislative efforts to prevent gun violence, asking each other and asking ourselves to pay attention to what happens in homes and communities, to women and children, may be the best or only way we can break this cycle.