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How are mass killings and domestic violence linked?

The man who shot and killed dozens at a Texas church had been convicted of assaulting his wife and a child, and he may have been motivated by a "domestic situation," say officials. The latest tragedy underscores a link between mass killings and domestic violence. John Yang talks with Deborah Epstein of the Georgetown Law Domestic Violence Clinic and James Fox of Northeastern University.

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  • John Yang:

    As we mentioned, authorities say an unspecified domestic situation may have been part of the shooter's motivation. Officials say the shooter was convicted in 2012 for assaulting his wife and a child.

    The tragedy underscores that those responsible for mass killings often have some history of domestic violence or family violence.

    We explore that now with Deborah Epstein, a practicing attorney and co-director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center, and James Alan Fox, a noted criminologist from Northeastern University in Boston.

    Welcome to you both.

    Deborah, let me start with you.

    We're learning some more details. We have learned that the assault on the child in 2012, for which he was convicted, was so severe, this child's — it was an infant — fractured his skull, the child's skull.

    The Air Force is also acknowledging they didn't give this information to the national criminal information database. What about this nexus between domestic violence and mass shootings, how do you see it?

  • Deborah Epstein:

    Well, there is a very tight correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings.

    If you look at all the mass shootings that have occurred on U.S. soil, 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 and other people get caught in the working out of all that.

    So — and you can see the parallels, right? So, if you are a person — and it's usually — in most cases, it's a man who is engaged in domestic violence — they're using violence as a strategy to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in their home.

    A mass shooter is doing the same thing on a much larger scale, creating a primary circle of fear and intimidation for the people there on the scene and then a much wider secondary circle for those of us who are watching it on tape, hearing about it in the media, all of that. But that need for fear and intimidation is there in both circumstances.

  • John Yang:

    Now, to be clear, Deborah, you're not saying that everyone with a history of domestic violence becomes a mass shooter, but you are saying that many mass shooters have a history of domestic violence?

  • Deborah Epstein:

    Exactly. Exactly.


  • John Yang:

    James Alan Fox, what do you think?

  • James Fox:

    There are tens of millions of cases of domestic violence in this country each year, and there are 20 mass shootings.

    So, clearly, there is not always a presence of domestic violence. In fact, only 16 percent of mass killings since 2006 involve individuals who have a history of domestic violence.

    Now, when you focus on family annihilations, a gunman who kills his wife and his whole family, then it's 29 percent. Most mass killers do not have a criminal record. Most mass murderers do not have a history of domestic violence.

    In fact, many of them live alone. They don't have a partner, and that's part of the problem, this social isolation. And if domestic violence was truly a causal factor here, boy, we would have a much bigger problem with mass murder than we do.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Fox, what characteristics do you see then among — sort of common among mass murderers, mass shooters?

  • James Fox:

    Well, they tend to have a history of frustration, failure, disappointment.

    And not only that. They blame other people for their problems. If they blame themselves, perhaps they would take the violence out on themselves, but they blame other people and want other people to suffer for what they have been going through.

    They don't particularly care to live anymore, because life is miserable, but they want other people to die as well. And, also, they have — they lack social support systems. They don't have close friends or family around them who can help them get through the hard times and help them put perspective on what they're feeling and thinking.

    Now, that describes tens of thousands of Americans. There are so many out there who don't smile, who write ugly words on the Internet, who have no friends, who are unemployed and losing job after job and getting divorced, but they don't pick up a gun and start shooting people.

    There's no way, no matter what factors we look at, that we can identify the next mass shooter. The only silver lining, I guess, is that it's a rare event, a couple dozen cases a year, and is not growing. The growth, however, is in the body count.

    And that's where, I think, President Trump is wrong, that guns really are an important factor here. Mental illness, no. In fact, only 18 percent of mass killers have a history of mental illness.

  • John Yang:

    Deborah Epstein, what about that point? The president said this was not a guns issue, this was a mental health issue.

  • Deborah Epstein:

    Well, of course it's a gun issue. If there hadn't been a gun, we wouldn't have had this level of carnage.

    And I don't know the facts in this case about the history of mental illness, but there is this clear link between using violence in the home and using violence in other situations where you encounter frustration and don't know how to deal with it.

    One of the few things we really know is that people who grow up in families where there is adult-on-adult abuse or the victims of child abuse are more likely to become batterers themselves, because they don't know how to deal with these situations of frustration and anger and isolation that we're just talking about. They learn how to deal with those situations with violence, not with other strategies.

  • James Fox:

    I agree with you on that, but what is…

  • Deborah Epstein:

    We need early interventions that allow people to relearn how to deal with frustration, not leap to violence.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Fox?

  • James Fox:

    I agree with you about the cycle of violence.

    But we're talking about a particular form of violence where domestic violence is rarely involved.

    Let me say something about mental health. Sure, we should have better mental — access to mental health treatment in this country. That's the right thing to do, but not for this reason.

    Why is it that we always talk about mental health in the aftermaths of a mass shooting? Is it because we care about the well-being of the mentally ill, or is it because we care about the well-being of the people they might kill?

    I think it's the latter. And that only adds to the stigma that we have in this country about mental illness, and we connect it to mass murder, when, in fact, the seriously mentally ill are less likely to commit serious acts of violence than the rest of us.

  • John Yang:

    Well, Mr. Fox, should we be more stringent about access to guns, to buying guns among the mentally ill, among people who have a history of mental illness?

  • James Fox:

    Well, I think we already are.

  • John Yang:

    But we do see cases…

  • James Fox:

    And, again, we're talking — if you're talking about a serious case of mental illness, people who have a history of treatment, who have been institutionalized, they are already not legally able to buy a gun.

    Now, the thing about mass killers is, if we — if we — if they can't buy a gun legally, it doesn't mean they can't get a gun.

    Look, Adam Lanza took his mother's gun. The Columbine shooters had a friend buy a gun for them, because they were too young to buy the kind of rifle that they wanted.

    So, what is true about mass killers is they're very determined. They will get a gun, no matter what obstacles we put in their path.

    Now, is gun control a good idea? Yes. But, again, the right thing to do — but not for this reason. The reason for gun control is, of course, every day in America. You know, we had 58 people killed in Las Vegas, but that's about the same number of people who are murdered every year — I mean, sorry — every day in America.

    So we have a gun problem, and we need to do something about it. This is just the tip of the iceberg that actually is least impacted by gun control.

  • John Yang:

    Deborah Epstein, we have about 30 seconds left.

    What do you want to see done?

  • Deborah Epstein:

    I want to see early intervention, before anybody gets access to the guns, before anybody commits violence, early interventions and money for research on programs that helps people deal with frustration in a way that doesn't involve access to violence.

  • John Yang:

    Deborah Epstein, James Alan Fox, thank you so much.

  • Deborah Epstein:

    Thank you.

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