Is there a connection between a spouse who beats their partner at home and a person who shoots up a grocery store or a massage parlor? There is growing evidence of a connection between mass shootings and domestic violence victims. When the threats to victims are ignored at home, sometimes they lead to tragedy on a larger scale.
On March 22, 2021, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa killed 10 people, including a police officer, when he brought a military-style semi-automatic rifle and a pistol into a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. The suspect had previously been convicted of misdemeanor assault against another student at his high school.
On March 26, 2021, Robert Aaron Long opened fire on three massage parlors near Atlanta Georgia, killing 8 people including 7 women, and 6 Asian-Americans. He told the police he was trying to eliminate his “temptation” to act on a “sexual addiction” and was getting revenge against the massage parlors he had visited in the past.
On Thursday, April 1, 2021, Aminadab Gaxiola Gonzalez shot and killed three adults and a 9-year-old boy at an office building in Orange, California. Police say that all the adults were connected by a business or personal relationship.
On April 15, 2021, Brandon Scott Hole shot and killed 8 people, including 4 members of the local Sikh community, at a FedEx facility in Indiana, Illinois. The FBI had interviewed Hole a year earlier after his mother called the local police saying she thought he might try to commit “suicide by cop.”
Four mass killings in less than a month have cut through the news of the Coronavirus and reminded the American people of a different kind of pandemic that has been sweeping the country for years. In spite of the strict social distancing rules, curfews, and shutdowns that swept the nation in 2020, mass shootings actually went up during the pandemic. If the last month is any indication, 2021 is following that same trend.
Nearly every mass shooter in U.S. history -- meaning a person who has killed four or more people with a firearm -- was a man. According to The Violence Project, 98% of mass shootings involve a male shooter. When women are involved in the shootings, they are often participating alongside a male partner, or seeking a way out of a violent situation. However, something else connects many who resort to mass killing: they have a history of domestic violence. A Bloomberg report from 2020 revealed that out of 749 mass shootings in the past 6 years, about 60% involved men who had histories or were in the act of committing domestic violence. The deadlier the incident, the higher the chances of a domestic violence history or gender-based motive. In incidents with six or more deaths, the correlation climbed to 70%.
Deborah Epstein, director of Georgetown University Law Center's Domestic Violence Clinic, told NPR’s All Things Considered:
“It makes sense when you consider what motivates most perpetrators of domestic violence who are using violence in their home as a strategy to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and to control the women in their lives, right? Mass shooters like this one in Atlanta are doing the same thing on a much larger scale. They are subjecting a large group of people they've targeted to this same sense of terror that the motivation is parallel. It's this need to dominate, intimidate and control other people.”
What does this mean for domestic violence survivors and the general public? It is a call to start giving closer scrutiny to the warning signs of lethality in domestic violence situations. The urge to kill, especially to kill multiple people, does not emerge all at once. In most domestic violence cases that turn fatal there is an escalation period. Shouting leads to hitting, leads to strangulation, leads to killing.
Consider the case of Esteban Santiago, who killed five and injured six others in an airport shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2017. Santiago had no less than 5 run-ins with police near his home in Anchorage, Alaska in the year leading up to his choice to become a mass shooter. Two of the reports indicated that he had strangled his girlfriend -- one in violation of a no-contact order. Strangulation is immediately dangerous -- often leading to neurological damage -- and can be deadly in less than five minutes. However, because it often leaves no visible injuries, police ignored the lethality of his behavior. Had Santiago’s criminal case been addressed as a more serious form of domestic violence, it would have triggered federal prohibitions on gun ownership. But because it was treated as a simple assault, Santiago was allowed to receive a deferred prosecution and avoid a domestic violence conviction.
Part of the problem is that in the U.S., violence against women is not treated as a hate crime. Epstein said:
“In other countries, when a woman is murdered on the basis of her sex, they call it femicide. In the U.S., that term seems like it's just too political for us to stomach. And so we use the generic term of murder. And I think this failure to name violence against women as women contributes to our failure to recognize it and to understand it.”
Turning again to the Atlanta spa killer, he admitted a sex-based motive to his actions. However, the police investigating the case said that it was not a hate crime because the shooter said the victims were Asian was not the motivating factor in his decision. Leaving aside, for the moment, the problem with allowing the abuser to frame his own crime, this assessment ignores the fact that Long was still acting out of hatred -- hatred of women.
It is essential that legislators and judges across the country start to listen to domestic violence survivors warning about red flags for lethal action. Many states, including California, have red flag laws that allow judges to order a person to surrender their firearms if it appears they are a danger to themselves or others. Still they often aren’t enough. In other cases, police, prosecutors, and judges downplay the danger an abuser poses to those closest to them. The consequence of this laid-back treatment of domestic violence is that those abusers with lethal tendencies will continue to escalate their behavior. In far too many instances, the end result is national news of yet another mass shooting.
At ADZ Law, LLP, we know how important it is for survivors to escape domestic violence. We proudly serve as victims’ advocates for domestic violence survivors, helping them to tell their stories and raise awareness of the kind of red flags that could lead to future mass killings. We stand by domestic abuse victims in court to help them prove their cases and find safety for their families. If you are the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, especially when there are firearms involved, we invite you to contact ADZ Law, LLP to schedule a consultation to learn more about our team, and how we can help.