Domestic violence and mass shootings: The link and the loopholes

WASHINGTON — Devin Patrick Kelley, who shot and killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, earlier this month, had been convicted in a military court of domestic violence and should have been ineligible to own a gun. He’s far from the only mass shooter with a history of abuse and violence toward women and family members.

And two observers recently told WTOP that holes in the system mean that authorities are missing chances to keep guns out of the hands of abusers.

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(On Tuesday, the issue arose again, as Kevin Neal, who was the subject of a domestic-violence call the previous day, shot and killed five people, including his wife, in Northern California.)

Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told WTOP, “Virtually in all (mass shooting) cases, this was not an isolated incident; there were prior acts of domestic violence.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, a reporter for The New York Times, said that underreporting of domestic violence in the military is only one gap in the system that may be putting guns in the hands of people who should be forbidden them by federal law.

A study from the gun-safety group Everytown for Gun Safety found that 54 percent of mass shootings were related to domestic violence.

A 2015 Huffington Post analysis found that 64 percent of mass shooting victims are women and children, whereas women make up only about 15 percent of all shooting victims and children 7 percent. (See a partial list below.)

Indeed, Webster pointed out, the most common kind of mass shooting — defined as one in which more than four people are killed, not including the shooter — is itself an act of domestic violence, “in which the assailant is attacking a family member or a partner or a formerly intimate partner.”

Kelley’s conviction should have resulted in the addition of his name to a database run by the National Crime Information Center; under federal law, he shouldn’t have been able to own a gun. A misdemeanor conviction on a domestic violence charge is one of 11 criteria that cause one to lose the right to own a gun (all felony convictions are also disqualifying events).


But there are several ways around the law.

Both Stolberg and Webster pointed out that the provision in federal law, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, only applies to couples who are or were married, are or were living together, or who have children together.

That leaves open what advocates call “the boyfriend loophole,” meaning that the law doesn’t apply when two people were in a dating relationship. Some states have closed that loophole, but many haven’t.

And firearms sales by private, unlicensed sellers are not subject to the federal law, either — such sellers aren’t required to consult the NCIC’s database. Again, some states close what is often, though not accurately, referred to as the “gun show loophole,” but not all.

Further complicating the problem: The federal law prohibits the acquisition of additional firearms, but doesn’t create a procedure for confiscating guns that offenders already own; states have to create those laws — and enforce them.

Advocates also point out that the Lautenberg Amendment covers those subject to permanent restraining orders, not temporary ones; when such an order expires, the abuser can, and often does, come back with a vengeance.

A military ‘failure’

Kelley was court-martialed and received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2012 for assaulting his then-wife and her son, fracturing the toddler’s skull. He was supposed to have been in the database for his domestic violence conviction, but he wasn’t; he’s probably not the only one who has fallen through the cracks.

Stolberg said that there’s only one case in the NCIC database from the Department of Defense reporting a domestic violence conviction.

Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, who served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor in 2012, told the New York Daily News that the omission was “a huge failure on the part of the Air Force.”

Stolberg said the Air Force is “now ‘fessing up to its terrible mistake,” and will now conduct a review of all cases “to determine if they’ve been properly reported.”

She added, “I suspect the other branches will also conduct a review,” but no such plans have been announced.

Webster said that “we don’t fully understand” what turns an abuser into a mass shooter, but that “one key thing is access to firearms. We’ve found that ready access to a firearm elevates risk for lethal consequences in domestic violence about fivefold.”

Domestic violence, he added, is “a very widespread phenomenon in our society, sadly, and of course, most of the people engaged in that do not go on to commit mass murder. So, I think we need to learn more about some of those signals that might suggest an even more lethal kind of situation.”

Still, he said, laws that keep guns out of the hands of abusers “do indeed save lives.”

Numbers and stories

The Huffington Post compiled an interactive graphic of 27 mass shootings — defined as causing four or more fatalities, not including the shooter — since 2015, committed by people with domestic violence histories or, that were acts of domestic violence. Some of the lowlights from this year:

  • Kelley was court-martialed from the Air Force in 2012 after having been convicted of assault on his then-wife and her child — the toddler’s skull was fractured.
  • Stephen Paddock, who shot and killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, was known for verbally abusing his girlfriend in public.
  • Spencer Hight killed his estranged wife, Meredith, and seven other people in Plano, Texas, on Sept. 10. His wife had told her mother that he had been abusive to her. The shooting happened at a party that she had thrown to celebrate her new life.
  • Willie Cory Godbolt shot and killed seven members of his estranged wife’s family and a sheriff’s deputy on May 27.
  • Dekitta Holmes killed her sister, her mother, the man she was living with and the man her mother was living with on April 6.
  • Esteban Santiago allegedly shot and killed five people at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6. He had been arrested a year before after his girlfriend told the police in Anchorage, Alaska, that he had attacked her. Police went to his house for reports of “physical disturbances” three times from March to October of that year.
  • And while it doesn’t fit the FBI’s definition of a mass shooting, James Hodgkinson, who shot at lawmakers practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game this past summer, was accused in 2006 of forcing his way into a neighbor’s house, grabbing his daughter by the hair and dragging her out, cutting the seat belt of the car she tried to get into to escape, and punching a female neighbor who threatened to call 911.

Other high-profile shootings:

  • Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded 58 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, was said by his ex-wife and his widow to have been abusive toward them, as well as other people.
  • Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in 2015, had been accused of physical abuse by at least two of his three ex-wives and was charged with rape in 1992 by a woman who told police he asked her out repeatedly and called two or three times a day.
  • Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, had been investigated for stalking two female students and told to stay away from them.
  • Adam Lanza shot his mother minutes before killing 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

And the fact that many lower-profile shootings have disappeared from the national consciousness, despite their high death counts, makes them just as chilling:

  • Wayne Anthony Hawes killed five people in Appling, Georgia, on April 22, 2016. Authorities said he started the spree after his wife left him.
  • David Ray Conley killed his ex-wife, her husband and six children, one of whom was his, in Houston in 2015. His first domestic violence report to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was in 2000.

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Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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