A Handful of States Fueled a National Increase in Domestic Violence Shooting Deaths as COVID-19 Spread
Sisters Sousan "Juju" Arab, left, and Nasim Arab were fatally shot last year in Houston. They were two of more than 2,000 people killed in domestic-violence-related shootings in the U.S. in 2020, according to Gun Violence Archive data. (Photo provided by family)
When Sahar Aubon video-called her younger sisters Nasim and Sousan “Juju” Arab on July 10, 2020, the way she did each morning, she was worried.
Nasim had left her ex-boyfriend Arian Hojat two weeks earlier, after his behavior — possessiveness, a quick temper, a fixation with guns — became too troubling to ignore. He was scheduled to come pick up his things from her apartment in Houston later that day, and Sahar feared what he might do.
“I pleaded with her: ‘Please don’t meet him. Leave stuff at the leasing office,’” Sahar told FRONTLINE. “I literally said, ‘He could kill you, Nasim.’”
It was the last time they spoke. Within hours, Sahar’s sisters were fatally shot, with Hojat as the sole suspect. He would be found in his car days later, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Nasim and Juju were among more than 2,000 people killed by domestic-violence-related shootings in 2020 — a 4% increase nationwide over 2019, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings across the United States.
But that uptick was not equally distributed. While some states saw shooting fatalities from domestic violence stay level or even decrease in 2020, an analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive revealed that others saw major spikes. To find out why, FRONTLINE spoke to researchers, advocates and law enforcement from four of the worst-affected states across the country.
Domestic violence advocates in three of those states — Texas, Utah and Missouri — said their states’ weak gun laws could be a factor, but a fourth, Maryland, has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. The data, and the questions it evokes, has advocates and law enforcement raising alarms and looking for answers.
The Data: Under-reported and Unavailable
Experts have long known that domestic violence killings disproportionately impact women. A 2017 Centers for Disease Control study found that nearly half of female homicide victims were killed by a current or former male partner. Overall, 23.% of all American killings from 2010 to 2019 were domestic homicides, more than half of which involved shootings, according to CDC statistics and data compiled by Northeastern University criminologist James Fox.
In reality, the number of women affected by domestic violence is likely underreported. Many victims of domestic assault do not seek help from legal authorities, for reasons including fear of retaliation from their abusers, lack of faith in the justice system, social stigma and the risk of police intervention among vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants. A 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics study estimated that 40% of domestic violence incidents go unreported to police.
Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, which both increased the risk of domestic violence and made accessing help more difficult, according to advocates interviewed by FRONTLINE. As the pandemic spread, troubling reports emerged across the country. Calls to abuse hotlines were up, but in-person services were disrupted by lockdowns, and victims were prevented from leaving abusive relationships due to stay-at-home orders and capacity restrictions at shelters.
Even when domestic violence is reported, it’s challenging to track. Annual information won’t be released by the FBI — the only federal agency that collects and provides national statistics on domestic violence homicides — until September, which makes early insights into 2020 so rare.
Due to its reliance on public reporting, the Gun Violence Archive does not capture every U.S. shooting that occurs. But its methods have major advantages. The GVA tracks shootings day-by-day, as they occur, and categorizes them consistently from state to state. Given the decentralized nature of American law enforcement, in which roughly 18,000 police departments individually report crime statistics to the FBI, the GVA is unique in providing detailed, real-time data on nationwide shootings.
The Findings: Dramatic Increases in Limited States
In analyzing GVA data, FRONTLINE found a 69% increase in domestic-violence-related shooting deaths in Texas from 2019 to 2020. In Maryland, it was 93%; in Missouri, it was 67%; and in Utah, it was 160%.
Asked why these states saw such dramatic increases, domestic violence experts and some law enforcement officials pointed to weaknesses in gun laws in Missouri, Texas and Utah, making it difficult to seize guns from abusers — even those legally barred from owning firearms.
But states with loose gun laws were not the only ones affected. Maryland’s fatalities nearly doubled, despite having some of the toughest gun laws in the country. And Georgia, which has looser gun laws, saw a decrease in domestic shooting deaths.
Researchers and advocates told FRONTLINE that a number of factors likely contributed to an increase in domestic shooting fatalities during the pandemic, including lockdowns that kept victims in close proximity to their abusers, increased financial stress and unemployment.
Law enforcement agencies reached by FRONTLINE did not have statewide data on domestic violence shooting fatalities and were unwilling to speculate on the reasons why states saw such variable outcomes. Local departments in Houston, Baltimore and Kansas City shared data that pointed to a spike in overall domestic violence, while Salt Lake City data deviated from the statewide findings.
One factor that raises the risk of domestic homicide, studies have found, is the presence of a gun in the home, and gun sales spiked during the pandemic, said David Keck, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms. Even Maryland, with its strict gun laws, saw its number of federal firearms background checks more than double from 2019 — one of the sharpest increases in the country and an indication that the number of gun sales in Maryland jumped as COVID-19 spread. Nationwide, background checks increased 39% from 2019 to 2020.
But why some states were hit so much harder than others is unclear, experts told FRONTLINE. Both Keck and April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and the author of widely cited papers on the factors behind domestic homicides, said they could not speculate on the reasons, based on the available data.
“Could I explain why one state might experience more than another? I don’t know,” Keck said.
Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and one of America’s leading domestic violence researchers, told FRONTLINE she is working on a large-scale domestic homicide study that could provide answers, but that research is years away from completion.
“I think what you’ve got is real, but making sense of it? It becomes really difficult without some more sophisticated analysis,” Campbell said.
The Communities: Looking for Answers
In Houston, the largest city in Texas and home to the Arab sisters, the severity of domestic violence increased last year, according to then-chief of the Houston Police Department, Art Acevedo, who left to become Miami’s police chief in March 2021. Domestic violence shootings also took a toll on Houston’s police force, he said: “In a span of 10 months, we lost two of our patrol sergeants to gunfire from domestic violence suspects.”
Acevedo attributed the shootings, in part, to difficulties in seizing guns from domestic abusers in Texas. While many convicted domestic abusers are not legally permitted to own firearms, the law does not apply to non-married partners who don’t live together. Acevedo called local gun relinquishment programs “hit or miss.”
“This is Texas. It’s difficult to take firearms away,” he said. “A lot of that ends up being voluntary.”
An initial lull in requests for domestic violence services during the pandemic turned into a spike once statewide stay-at-home orders were lifted in May 2020, said Maisha Colter, CEO of the nonprofit AVDA, which provides legal advocacy to domestic violence survivors in Texas.
Colter told FRONTLINE her organization had helped secure five lifetime protective orders — typically reserved for the most dangerous cases — in three months of 2020 after obtaining five orders, total, in all of 2019.
“Domestic violence is a public health crisis that existed before COVID. But certainly, as with all the things we see relating to COVID, it’s almost like a Petri dish,” Colter said. “If you had a problem before COVID in whatever sphere — domestic violence, health issues, racism — COVID has elevated it.”
In Missouri, a State Highway Patrol spokesperson told FRONTLINE domestic violence homicide statistics for 2020 had not yet been released. In Kansas City, domestic violence homicides by any method increased 57% year-over-year, according to data released by the city’s police department.
Matthew Huffman, public affairs director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said his organization had noticed a spike in such killings. “Our lax gun laws are creating increased likelihood that more women will die at the hands of their male partners due to gun violence,” he said, citing the state’s lack of a permit needed for the concealed carrying of handguns and the absence of a state law preventing misdemeanor abusers from purchasing firearms.
In Utah, domestic violence homicides using firearms tripled from 2018 to 2020, according to Liz Sollis, spokesperson for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. The state’s total number — 26 such killings in 2020, per the Gun Violence Archive — may sound low compared to Texas. But Utah’s per-capita rate of domestic gun homicides in 2020 was four times that of New York, according to GVA data. That spike appears to have been driven by a spate of killings involving multiple family members and murder-suicides, Sollis said.
Spokespersons for Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox and the Utah Department of Public Safety did not return requests for comment. Salt Lake City did not experience an increase in domestic violence gun homicides last year, a public information officer for the Salt Lake City Police Department told FRONTLINE. Rather, all but one such killing in the state took place outside the city, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
In addition to exacerbating isolation and economic distress, COVID led to court closures in Utah, meaning months-long delays in domestic assault trials that placed victims at risk, according to Sollis.
“That delayed justice could be a matter of life and death,” she said.
On the other side of the country, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence tracked a 93% increase in overall domestic-related homicides from 2019 to 2020 — a jump the organization’s interim executive director, Jennifer Pollitt Hill, said likely was due to victims and abusers being forced into close quarters, as well as the stress of job losses.
“It is a pretty dramatic increase,” Hill said. “During this whole pandemic, all of the domestic violence centers have repeatedly said that the level of violence that folks are reporting is notably more severe than in years past.”
Even so, Hill said: “To hear you say that that doesn’t track with other places in the country is really confusing.”
The office of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did not return a request for comment. The Maryland State Police told FRONTLINE it did not yet have domestic violence homicide statistics available for 2020.
The city of Baltimore saw an uptick from four to seven gun-related domestic killings in 2020, according to data provided by city police — a 75% increase but a small proportion of Maryland’s overall numbers.
Domestic violence has continued to intensify in Baltimore in 2021. Baltimore Police, the U.S. Marshals and state authorities launched an initiative targeting domestic violence in March, following a 31% increase year-over-year in all violent crimes related to domestic violence, killings and otherwise, a representative of the police department said. The campaign led to 58 arrests, including warrants for second-degree murder and attempted murder.
What comes next? That, like much of the data on domestic violence shootings, remains unclear. The Gun Violence Archive does not show a significant change in domestic violence shooting fatalities in the first months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
In the meantime, for the family of Nasim and Juju Arab, the pain has not dissipated. Ten months after the sisters’ shooting, their mother, Karen Sweet-Angel, still feels the weight of their deaths each day.
“You think because they’re two amazingly beautiful, amazingly talented, educated young women, how could something like this happen to them? How could something like this happen to our family?” Sweet-Angel told FRONTLINE. “If it happened to my daughters, it could happen to anybody.”