Domestic violence is a tragedy. It's not a predictor of mass murder.

James Alan Fox
Published 5:00 a.m. ET Nov. 15, 2017 | Updated 8:59 p.m. ET Nov. 15, 2017

Texas Public Safety authorities say the Sutherland Springs church shooting appears to have stemmed from a "domestic situation." It's not the first domestic incident involving suspected gunman Devin Kelley. USA TODAY.

Well-meaning experts risk their credibility by asserting a link between domestic abuse and mass shootings. Statistics simply don't back it up.
The gun-pointing has predictably shifted to finger-pointing since the Texas church shooting in which 25 parishioners were killed, including a pregnant woman whose unborn baby also died, and many others were wounded. Could this atrocity have been prevented by better follow-through on the gunman's history of violence, which included abuse of his ex-wife and stepson?

The horrific nature of this crime gave advocates for various causes the opportunity to push their well-meaning agendas. The gunman's violent past was especially telling for experts on domestic violence.

Appearing on the PBS NewsHour the day after the shooting, Deborah Epstein, co-director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center, claimed there is a strong correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings. "If you look at all the mass shootings that have occurred on U.S. soil," said Epstein, "The vast majority of them have been committed by people who have perpetrated domestic violence against an intimate partner, a series of intimate partners, or are in the process of dealing with domestic violence."

In a one-week follow-up story about the church shooting, a headline in the San Antonio Express-News read, "Are mass killings and domestic violence linked? It depends who you ask." You'd think such a determination would be a matter of fact, not opinion. Unfortunately, in the media version of the children"s game of telephone, the message is easily misinterpreted as it gets repeated from one news source to another.

"There is an obvious link between mass shootings and domestic violence," suggested Susan Higginbotham, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She at least cited her evidence: "A study last year by Everytown for Gun Safety, which used FBI data and media reports to analyze mass shootings from January 2009 to December 2016, showed that 54% of the perpetrators of these horrific mass killings had a history of domestic or family violence."

Higginbotham was only partially correct, misconstruing the most important point. The Everytown study did indeed find that 54% of mass shootings involved intimate partners or family members as victims. In this majority, however, the domestic violence was the mass shooting of family members, and not necessarily a history of previous domestic violence.

Everytown's case summaries of 156 shootings from 2009 through 2016 (in which four or more victims are killed), reveal 85 incidents in which a gunman murdered at least some current or former intimate partners or family members. Of these, 41% were preceded by other acts of domestic violence. Among the entire pool of mass shootings, only 25% revealed any indication of prior domestic violence.

Even if a majority of mass shootings were preceded by violence against intimate partners or family, that still would hardly serve as a reliable predictor of mass murder. There are, unfortunately, at least 10 million incidents of domestic violence every year, according to estimates reported by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. By contrast, there are, on average, about 22 mass shootings annually with at least four fatalities. Were we to predict mass murder on this basis of domestic violence, we would be wrong well more than 99% of the time.

To be very clear, domestic violence is a serious concern. It causes significant emotional and physical pain, and sometimes escalates to murder. It should never be ignored or taken lightly. We need to do whatever possible through prevention strategies in terms of socializing children and intervention efforts, including arrest and gun confiscation, when it does occur. This is the right thing to do, but let's get straight concerning why.

There are at least 10 million reasons to elevate our vigilance in responding to domestic violence. We shouldn"t need an occasional mass killing in which the assailant had been charged with spousal or family abuse to motivate us.

I applaud the efforts of those dedicated folks who have made domestic violence prevention the focal point of their careers. But please don't diminish your credibility by abusing the data to make your case.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox