On June 14, 2017, Rep. Steve Scalise, a congressional staffer, and some members of the congressional police force were shot in Alexandria, Virginia at a baseball practice, according to CNN. At least five people, including Rep. Scalise, were hospitalized. Federal authorities have identified the gunman, who was later killed by law enforcement, as 66-year-old Illinois resident John Hodgkinson. According to NBC News, public records reveal that Hodgkinson has an arrest record, including a 2006 charge for assaulting his girlfriend. The case was eventually dismissed.
On Monday, April 10th, 2017 a man with an alleged history of domestic violence walked into a San Bernardino elementary school and murdered his wife and her special needs student. The victim, Karen Smith, had recently left the shooter, Cedric Anderson after only two months of marriage, according to the Los Angeles Times. In the month following her departure, Anderson allegedly repeatedly harassed Karen and made multiple threats against her, which she shared with her family. While she was troubled by his behavior, she saw his threats as cries for attention, according to police.
The details of these three cases are jarring and, of course, devastating, but unfortunately, they are not unusual. Fifty-seven percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2015 were committed by intimate partners or family, according to an analysis conducted by Everytown For Gun Safety. The organization also reports that women are 16 times more likely to be killed with guns in the U.S. than in other developed countries, and that 52 percent of those women killed by guns fall at the hand of intimate partners or family. Nearly one in four women have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sadly, even that number doesn’t show the full extent of domestic abuse, which can be emotional as well as physical.
The takeaway is two-fold. One, domestic violence is often kept hidden—Cedric’s social media accounts tell the story of a happy relationship—and two, we all need protection from those with a history of domestic abuse.
What’s most frightening about domestic violence is that it often remains unseen. A look at Cedric’s Facebook page shows what appears to be a loving marriage. His timeline is filled with wedding videos, honeymoon photos, and doting posts like one calling her an “angel” just weeks before the shooting. This tactic isn’t unusual. By perfecting the outer image of a relationship, the abuser is establishing control over the victim, says Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and loveisrespect.
The very definition of domestic abuse is when one partner or loved one uses power to exert control over the other, Crawford says. In creating this façade, Anderson fostered an environment where he could say, “Who would even believe you?” In cases like this, the victim might second-guess their experience, because in public the abuser’s behavior is completely different. This is another way abusers make it harder for victims to seek help, says Crawford.
When domestic violence escalates to gun violence, we are all in danger, as exhibited by the fate of two of Smith’s students, one killed and another injured. “Call it what it is,” says Crawford. “People were relieved to hear it wasn’t terrorism, but that’s the wrong attitude.” This kind of violence happens every day, and small-scale acts of abuse are often a gateway to more violence. Of the 43 percent of mass shootings that do not directly involve partners or family members, many shooters have a history of domestic violence—the Pulse nightclub shooter, Boston marathon bomber, and Planned Parenthood shooter all were alleged abusers, as reported by The Cut. And in many of those cases, the gunman exhibited warning signs, says Crawford. “They had a documented history of abuse, violating protective orders, substance abuse, the list goes on.”
Organizations like Everytown and the National Domestic Violence Hotline believe that the best way to combat the escalation of domestic abuse is the implementation of gun registration that prohibits those with a history of violence from being able to purchase a gun. Anderson, despite his arrest record (including on charges of domestic violence), was never convicted—making him still eligible to legally purchase a firearm, according to the Los Angeles Times.
An even better way is to fight the root of this issue, says Crawford, by reaching out to victims and potential victims to give them support. While it might be hard for anyone to know from the outside of a relationship if there’s anything wrong, Crawford says there are a few subtle signs of abuse to be aware of. If a friend or loved one is becoming more withdrawn and isolated, that could be an indication something is off, she says. Other red flags include if the relationship is getting serious too quickly, or if the person seems jumpy to respond to their partner’s calls and texts, as though something might happen if they don’t reply.
“It can be as simple as asking the person, ‘What do you need? How can I help?’ and listening without judgment,” Crawford says.