Domestic Violence

Profile of a Mass Shooter: The Domestic Violence Link

Violence against women is intimately connected with mass shootings.

Posted May 07, 2016

This past week, my hometown of Mongtomery County, Maryland, was on lockdown because of a public shooter. As the local news summarizes:

A federal officer was captured Friday, a day after police say he shot to death his estranged wife in Beltsville, and investigators said they ‘have reason to believe’ the same man is connected to two fatal shootings earlier in the day at the Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda and Giant Foods in Silver Spring. (Belt, 2016, para 1).

This shooter shot and killed his estranged wife while she was picking up their daughter from high school then went on a seemingly random spree for the next 24 hours, fatally shooting a woman in the parking lot of a grocery store and another one outside of a prominent mall in the area. There was a protective order against his going to the high school where their daughter was a student, but this did not stop him from ambushing his estranged wife and murdering her in front of their daughter.

In the aftermath of public shootings, researchers are at a loss to compile a thorough and foolproof profile of a shooter. There are so many extraneous variables, and not everything that would appear on the surface to be linked to risk factors for public acts of violence necessarily holds up to scientific scrutiny (for instance, in an earlier post I report that approximately 4% of mass violence in our culture can be attributed to mental illness, a staggering statistic that surprises most people and defies media depictions of the mentally ill; for the full article click here). The unpredictability of public mass shootings in particular make them very hard to prevent or predict for policy makers and scholars alike.

An often overlooked link regarding mass shootings, whether private or public (a mass shooting is defined as a violent act where there are at least four fatalities—it need not be a public act per se to meet this standard) has to do with incidents of domestic violence.

In fact, domestic violence in America is to a significant degree a problem of gun violence. Over the past 25 years, more intimate partner homicides in the U.S. have been committed with guns than with all other weapons combined. And people with a history of committing domestic violence are five times more likely to subsequently murder an intimate partner when a firearm is in the house. (“Guns & Violence Against Women”, 2014, para 3).

The astonishing link between partner violence and mass shootings is that in a staggering 57% of mass shooting between 2009-2014, “the perpetrator had killed an intimate partner or family member” (Guns & Violence Against Women”, 2014, para 4). Moreover, oftentimes the killing of a partner can become a catalyst for even greater public acts of violence, such as random shootings—which was the case with the shooting spree that occurred this week in Maryland.

In that same analysis of recent mass shootings a sample size of 133 incidents were studied, and in addition to that 57% number being identified, the researchers uncovered that a prior domestic violence charge was also present for a significant number of cases that were in the sample (“Analysis of Mass Shootings”, 2015). Thus, tackling domestic violence would serve to not only prevent partners from becoming victims (which is significant enough) but it could also more generally help curb mass shootings that have eluded scholars and policy makers regarding prevention (particularly in the wake of our loose gun laws and a lack of political will to change loopholes that are often directly implicated in procuring the weapons that perpetrators use for their atrocities).

Even my description of mass shootings may be misleading since I am using examples that take place in public. For instance, one article suggests that, “the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. take place in private. They occur in the home, and the victims are predominantly women and children” (Jeltsen, 2015, para 6). These cases tend to receive less media coverage than public mass shootings, however, probably because public shootings generate a greater risk (and hence, interest) to the public at large and as mentioned earlier they tend to be unpredictable and seemingly random.

The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence. It is one of men (yes, mostly men) targeting and killing their wives or ex-girlfriends or families. The victims are intimately familiar to the shooters, not random strangers. This kind of violence is not indiscriminate — though friends, neighbors and bystanders are often killed alongside the intended targets. (Jeltsen, 2015, para 7)

It is clear that domestic violence and gun violence go hand in hand. In fact, 93% of women murdered by men are killed by someone that they know, often intimately (Sugarmann, 2014). There is an additional link as well, which is that the violence seen by perpetrators against their partners is also at risk for escalating into a more general violence against the public. Such was the case for the shootings this week in Maryland (which technically wouldn’t even meet the standard for “mass shootings” because so far three fatalities have been reported).

Sadly, just like victims of domestic violence, women are also at risk for becoming targets in cases of mass shootings (in fact the study alluded to earlier calculated that 50% of the victims were female). Other studies have identified 64% of mass shooting victims as women and children (as reported by Jeltsen, 2015).  In the specific case of the tragedy in Maryland this week, so far all the targets appear to have been women, although one of the fatalities, sadly, was a male bystander who attempted to help one of the women after she was shot.

Acts of violence specifically aimed at women continue to be marginalized in our culture. Perhaps if we more explicitly fuse domestic violence with mass shootings, the threat will be taken more seriously, and policymakers will have an even greater incentive to keep women safe.

Belt, D. (2016, May 6). Washington Beltway Shootings: 4 shot, 2 killed in Mall and Grocery; Federal officer in custody. Bethesda-Chevy Chase Patch. Retrieved on May 7, 2016 from:

Analysis of Mass Shootings. (2015, August 20). Everytown For Gun Safety. Retrieved on May 7, 2016 from:

Guns and Violence Against Women. (2014, June 16). Everytown For Gun Safety. Retrieved on May 7, 2016 from:

Jeltsen, M. (2015, August 25). We’re Missing the Big Picture on Mass Shootings. The Huffington Post: Politics. Retrieved on May 7, 2016 from:

Sugarmann, J. (2014, December 1). For Women, Gun Violence Often Linked to Domestic Violence. Huffington Post: Politics. Retrieved on May 7, 2016 from:

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2016