In the Crosshairs: Domestic Violence and Mass Shootings

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By Giugi Carminati | @GiugiCarminati | Guest Contributor

Mass shootings are the result of guns in the wrong hands. But whose hands are the wrong hands? Well, several, but relevant to mass shootings in the United States, hands that have committed domestic violence make for a strong predictor.

James T. Hodgkinson, who shot GOP leaders at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria was arrested in 2006 for domestic battery. The charges were dropped. Omar Mateen, the  Orlando nightclub shooter, allegedly beat his wife. Robert Lewis Dear, who shot up a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015, was accused of physically abusing his wives. According to Everytown for Gun Safety “a majority of mass shooters from 2009 to 2015 were intimate partner, ex-partner, or family member abusers.” While it is true that the law theoretically does not allow people convicted of domestic violence to own guns, somehow it keeps happening. Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, was able to obtain a gun from a sporting goods store in April 2016, according to ABC News. He was a convicted domestic abuser.

What can we learn from the common link between domestic violence and mass shootings? For one, we can recognize the role toxic masculinity plays in both. Toxic masculinity according to activist and writer Ryan Douglass “is built on two fundamental pillars: sexual conquest and violence—qualities men regale as manly and virtuous.” Toxic masculinity glorifies ownership of things: money, power, women. Money is harder to come by, but women and power can be claimed through sexual violence and access to guns.

And here we find the intersection, for what is a mass shooting but a violent reclaiming of power over those who have wronged the shooter? Indeed, Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, was remembered at his local Starbucks for berating his female companions. Specifically, he is remembered as telling his female companion, as she tried to pay for a coffee with a casino card, “'You don’t need my casino card for this. I’m paying for your drink, just like I’m paying for you.'” He literally told a woman he owned her. As we know, he later killed 59 people and injured over 500.  

Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter, left behind a manifesto stating, “You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it.” His mass shooting was specifically targeted at women, punishing them for failing to have sex with him; for failing to let him exert his power over them.

Let’s not allow apologists to muddy the waters; masculinity and toxic masculinity are two very different things. Those who refuse to see or do not see the difference between the two are part of the problem. Masculinity in the form of physical strength, endurance, confidence, loyalty and honor are healthy. As Douglass notes, “Masculinity is real, natural, and biological. Toxic masculinity is a performance invented to reinforce it.”

Getting back to the main point, toxic masculinity translates into domestic violence. And while domestic violence is the “coal mine canary” for mass shootings, the underlying “disease” is toxic masculinity. It does not, however, operate alone. Rape culture is its loyal sidekick.

Rape culture minimizes and normalizes violence against women. It is no accident domestic abusers continue to have access to guns—high power rifles, no less—when the law specifically prohibits them from doing so. Society does not take domestic abuse seriously. If it did, the federal government would have done more than just put a law on the books. It would, for example, design and implement a procedure for abusers to surrender their guns. (There is no procedure, which means unless a state steps in to fill the gap, abusers get to keep the guns they already have.) Only twenty-five states have some requirements for domestic abusers to surrender weapons. And within those states, judges don’t always order a surrender.

Overall, this country still labors under the impression that domestic abuse and domestic violence are “lapses in judgment” or personal situations “gone too far.” The #MeToo campaign, among other things, illustrated how ubiquitous the violation of women is, be it verbal, physical, or sexual. We bring this ubiquity into our home lives. Within women’s homes, gun violence and domestic violence intersect, once again. According to the Giffords Law Center, “Abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm, and domestic violence assaults involving a gun are 12 times more likely to end in death than assaults with other weapons or physical harm.”

Outside the home, we accept violence against women as “a fact of life.” It shouldn’t be.

While President Trump stated this latest shooting was the result of “mental health,” and others jumped on the bandwagon, the true “disease” is toxic masculinity. We need to call it what it is and address it head on. It is not a mental health problem; it is a social problem, and a uniquely male one at that. As far as laws are concerned, domestic abusers should have not access to guns. Period. The law says as much, so let’s enforce it.


Giugi Carminati is an intersectional women’s advocate at her law firm, The Woman’s Lawyer. She represents women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. She is licensed in TX, DC, CO and NY.