Warning: This conversation will include discussion of domestic and gun violence.
The United States is home to 4 percent of the world’s population, but owns 40 percent of the world’s guns. In 2020, a year that will likely be remembered for the height of the global coronavirus pandemic, there were 43,538 gun deaths in America, and at least 611 mass shooting events – the most on record, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Additionally, more than 2,000 people were killed by domestic violence-related shootings in 2020, a 4 percent increase from 2019.
PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham spoke with Michigan State University’s April Zeoli and domestic violence shelter My Sister’s House CEO Tosha Connors on June 15 about the connection between guns and domestic violence in America.
Watch the panel in the video player above.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Why it’s so hard to leave a physically abusive relationship
When clients reach out with concerns about intimate partner violence, they often aren’t ready to leave their abusive relationships, said Connors.
A person’s chances of being murdered are greater when they decide to leave their abuser, Connors said, as the abuser confronts the loss of power and control over the victim. She noted that a number of factors can complicate attempts to leave, and sometimes victims need to make preparations before they can make a safe exit. If clients don’t even recognize they’re in a dangerous relationship, the process can take time.
“With these abusive relationships, there has been this history of being isolated from your family and friends, from your support network,” she said, noting that people may first need to gather forms of identification that have been kept from them, such as their social security card, driver’s license or children’s birth certificates. Connors said sometimes her organization starts by helping clients save up money and gather these essential items first.
Mass shooters are more likely to have committed domestic violence
The most common type of mass shooting in the U.S. is a family mass shooting, which can involve an intimate partner or other family members, said Zeoli. Even among people who commit mass shootings of non-family members, many have a history of domestic violence, Zeoli said. Research published earlier this year found that 38 percent of known mass shooters had a history of domestic violence, either known to the justice system or mentioned in the media
Zeoli said that while there is not much research about why this connection exists, it does appear that “the history of domestic violence, the use of domestic violence, is more common in mass shootings than we would expect in the general public.”
“It’s very important that we’re talking about people who are willing to terrorize the people they purport to love,” she added.
Why the term ‘red flag law’ is problematic
Legislation that temporarily restricts people considered to be dangerous from having a gun is often referred to as a “red flag” law. But Zeoli said this term is not helpful, because it “brings up the image of someone with a mental illness.” People with mental illness account for a very small portion of gun violence, according to studies reviewed by the American Psychological Association, and people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of gun violence than the perpetrators.
“It’s about violent behaviors,” Zeoli said. “A history of committing violence is what makes you dangerous and a danger to others in the future, not mental illness.”
How to tell if someone might be in an abusive relationship and how to help
If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, Connors recommended helping them safely plan their exit and look for sexual assault and domestic violence agencies in their region that can assist.
Connors also said it was important to recognize what intimate partner violence looks like, and realize that it may not always be physical, and can very well be linked to financial abuse, psychological abuse, or sexual and reproductive rights as well.
She added that these discussions should not be taboo. “If somebody is in an unhealthy relationship, we should be able to talk about that and be able to model in our own homes and our churches, places of worship, civic groups, schools, what healthy relationships really look like,” Connors said.