SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Perpetrators of domestic abuse represent a tiny subset of U.S. gun owners but pose the greatest threat when it comes to mass shootings, according to gun violence researchers who studied cases over a six-year period from 2014 to 2019.
This group is composed of people who have abused an intimate partner or who have a history of having done so, according to research from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence published in the Injury Epidemiology journal.
Two out of every three mass shootings analyzed in that paper were linked to domestic violence, said Lisa Geller, the lead author of the paper and the state affairs manager for the nonprofit affiliate of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Her team looked at shootings where four or more people died, not including the shooter.
Not only was their a frequent intersection between domestic violence and mass shootings, Geller said, but when the two intersected, it typically raised the risk that someone would die. On average, her research team found, two out of six people will survive a mass shooting if it’s not related to domestic violence, but if it is, only one in six made it out alive.
“The intent behind a perpetrator who kills a family member or intimate partner may be different from someone who perpetrates some of these high-profile public mass shootings that we hear about a lot on the news,” Geller said. “This intent to make sure that a family or intimate partner is killed, may mean that they are more likely to actually die from that gunshot.”
These shooters also execute their plan in familiar surroundings where they know how to trap people and get to their intended target, Geller said, whereas in random mass shootings, the perpetrator is shooting indiscriminately and going after as many people as possible.
The difference in survival, Geller said, also may be affected by how quickly ambulances or police are alerted or how quickly they respond. Her research did not control for such differences.
Geller’s team pulled data on mass shootings from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, an online repository of incidents logged by more than 7,500 law enforcement, government, media and commercial sources. Then they set about tracking down the history of each shooter with a death toll of four or more.
The researchers started with cases from 2014 because that’s when the archive launched, and they ended in 2019 because it was the last complete year before their work began.
Mass shootings actually are rare events in the United States, making up about 1% of the gun violence that occurs, said Geller, whose team found 110 events in the Gun Violence Archive where four or more victims were killed.
However, she said, if you looked at all homicides related to domestic violence, you would find that, on average, they represent 25% of all homicides in the United States. In 2019, the National Vital Statistics System reported 19,141 U.S. homicides.
This small subset of gun owners are taking a lot of lives, not only those of their partners and bystanders but also their own, Geller said.
“A lot of the perpetrators of these mass shootings, specifically of domestic violence mass shootings, did die by firearm suicide,” Geller said, “and so there is this relationship between suicidality and domestic violence and potentially mass shootings. … We found that 55 perpetrators … died during the incidents, and 71% of those (who) died, died by firearm suicides.”
All but one of the remaining shooters were shot and killed by law enforcement, often referred to as suicide by police, Geller said. The final perpetrator died as a result of an overdose.
The lethality of guns makes it more likely that people will die in crisis situations involving domestic violence, Geller said, and that is why her group advocates for removing guns from perpetrators of intimate partner violence whether they are married to their partner or not.
The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and other research organizations recommend that states use a couple of tools to remove guns from people with a history of domestic violence: extreme risk protection orders, often called red flag laws, and a type of civil restraining order known as domestic violence protection orders.
While federal law prohibits anyone subject to a domestic violence order from buying or possessing a weapon, the statute does not address the temporary restraining orders initially issued to defendants in such cases. Victims face the highest risk of being killed or injured before a final order is granted, researchers have found.
California and other states have moved to close that gap in this protection by requiring surrender of firearms after a temporary permit has been issued and expanding the definition of intimate partners to those who have had a dating or engagement relationship.
And, extreme risk protection orders authorize certain individuals — employers, co-workers and teachers in the Golden State — to petition courts to remove firearms from individuals who are a danger to themselves or others.
“These incidences of domestic violence are usually not random,” Geller said. “Police have often been involved before these homicides occur. We need to talk about this issue more, focus more on solutions, and not just focus on the gun violence that’s already making the news.”
On its website, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers a safety plan with almost two dozen tips on how to help a person who is being abused. The tips start by advising: Don’t judge the victim. You are not in their situation.
Geller suggests those who want to help familiarize themselves with potential resources, then ask a person being abused whether they’re OK. Listen without judging, she said, and offer the individual one resource if they express a need for help.
Although women make up the majority of abuse victims, experts say, everyone should bear in mind that men, women and nonbinary individuals all may find themselves in such relationships. “One in four women and one in seven men will experience severe domestic violence in their lifetimes,” Geller said.
Geller said she hopes her team’s work shows people that domestic violence should no longer be considered a personal or private family matter: “This is an enormous public health crisis,” she said.