We're Only Having Half the Conversation We Need to About Mass Shootings

Most of the critical response to the Parkland shooting has focused on gun control—as it should—but there has been little mention of domestic violence

Parkland Shooting: Two people hug during a candlelight memorial service for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Two people hug during a candlelight memorial service for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Photo: Getty)

On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the end of the school day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire outside of Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He made his way inside the building and continued shooting into classrooms, stalking up and down the hallways. He was a former student at the school who had been expelled for unspecified disciplinary issues, so the terrain would have been well-known to him. His rampage left 17 people dead, a death toll that authorities say could continue to rise in the coming days.

He faces 17 counts of premeditated murder. According to a police arrest report, he confessed to police the following day that he “began shooting students that he saw in the hallways and on school grounds.” He hasn’t shared his motive yet. The New York Times reports a timeline that suggests he arrived at the school via an Uber at 2:19 p.m., before pulling out a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle. He was able to obtain the gun legally; in Florida, while there’s a three-day waiting period for handguns (which you must be 21 to buy), AR-15s can be bought by people as young as 18, barring a short background check that takes just minutes to complete.

We’re seeing a pattern of all-too-familiar behaviour

During a news conference on the evening of the shooting, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said the motive for the attack—the deadliest school shooting in five years—was unknown. But while authorities may not yet be able to officially release any information about why the suspect did what he did, accounts from those who knew him show a pattern that is all too familiar.

Jim Gard, a math teacher who taught Cruz in 2016, said that the school’s administration had flagged concerns about Cruz and emailed the staff about them. It wasn’t until after the shooting, though, that Gard began to hear a new story about Cruz from his students. Cruz was obsessed with a girl at the school, they said; several students used the word “stalking” to describe his actions.

A 17-year-old junior at the school said that Cruz had been abusive to a former girlfriend and that his expulsion had come after a fight with her new boyfriend.

The Associated Press reports that the leader of a white supremacist group, who claims that Cruz had taken part in training drills with the group, said that Cruz had “trouble with a girl” and that he believed the timing of the attack—on Valentine’s Day—was not a coincidence. Law enforcement officials say Cruz has “no known ties” to the group and are attempting to find out more information.

And The Daily Beast has a screen grab of a comment on YouTube video from a year ago by a user called Nikolas Cruz. It reads: “Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten.” The Daily Beast goes on to say: “Cruz celebrated Elliot Rodger, the gunman who killed seven people at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014 and who is considered a hero of the fringe men’s rights movement.” Rodger left behind a manifesto, which detailed his hatred toward women.

Based on these stories, it appears that Cruz had a history of threatening behaviours toward a former girlfriend, and while this might seem like a red herring amid all of the other elements unfolding in this story, it’s absolutely not. Intimate partner violence is one of the greatest predictors for mass shootings. In 2017, gun safety advocates Everytown USA analyzed every American mass shooting from 2009-2016 and said “the majority of mass shooting in the U.S. are related to domestic or family violence.” Of 156 mass shootings analyzed (where more than four people were shot) during that seven-year period, more than half (54 percent) were related to domestic or family violence.

Domestic violence and gun violence are deeply intertwined

Most of the critical response to the Parkland shooting has focused on gun control—as it should—but there has been little, if any, mention of domestic violence. And yet the two issues are so deeply intertwined that it should be impossible to talk about one without acknowledging the other. Guns make instances of intimate partner violence far more likely to be lethal; citing a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Everytown USA writes: “When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the likelihood that a woman will be shot and killed increases fivefold.” And when it comes to mass shootings, perpetrators often have a history of violence against women—this has been true in the case of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting, the Sutherland Springs church shooting and countless others.

Parkland shooting: quote card that reads: We cannot just call for gun control, we have to call for an elimination of men's violence against women.

“Mass shootings are not only about gun control, they are about men’s violence against women,” says anti-sexual violence educator and advocate Farrah Khan. “Too often the shooters have a history of abusing, stalking and being violent toward women they have dated. We cannot just call for gun control, we have to call for an elimination of men’s violence against women. This would be mean sustainable core funding for violence against women services that includes services for young women. We also need core funding for programming, services and education on the impact of toxic masculinity. It cannot be an afterthought or seen as a private matter. Men’s violence against women is an epidemic that needs to end.”

We know bullets don’t discriminate between genders. Cruz did not appear to be targeting anyone in particular during his shooting spree: nine of the 17 victims were men and teen boys.  So often we see that while the motivations for many mass shootings are intimate partner violence and anger against women, men end up among the victims.

Here in Canada we tend to be smug about gun violence, believing that stricter firearm legislation keeps us immune to the types of tragedies that play out south of the border. But while mass shootings are certainly less prevalent here, domestic violence—often involving guns—is all too common. According to Statistics Canada, an average of 69 women are murdered by intimate partners every year. That’s one woman every 5.3 days. Often these murders are preceded by months or even years of escalating involvement by law enforcement, including restraining orders, arrests and convictions, but in many cases that’s not enough to prevent a woman’s death. It certainly wasn’t in the case of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, three former partners of Basil Borutski who were killed one after the other on one brutal September day in 2015. Long before he killed Culleton, Kuzyk and Warmerdam, Borutski had racked up plenty of convictions relating to assault and abuse; he’d even spent time in prison. And yet there was nothing in place to prevent him coldly and methodically taking the lives of his former partners.

Stricter gun control would not have saved Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam. In fact, Borutski was under a 10-year weapons ban when he killed them and was carrying a firearm illegally. But perhaps a culture that takes violence against women more seriously could have meant the difference to them between life and death.

In the wake of this latest mass shooting, there needs to be a continuing dialogue about gun legislation in America, but it doesn’t end there. We need to stop ignoring the fact that we are only having half of the conversation. Real change will happen once we acknowledge that the issues of gun control and violence against women are inseparable. It is not until we see both mass shootings and domestic violence as facets of the same problem that we can begin working to create a world in which people are truly safe.

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