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.
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
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
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