Within hours of Wednesday's mass shooting at the Alexandria, Virginia, baseball field where Republican members of Congress were practicing, the Daily Beast reported that the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, had a history of violence against women. This was no surprise, sadly. Research shows that in the majority of mass shooting incidents the murderer kills at least one partner or family member, and a history of domestic violence is a fairly typical part of a shooter's background.
"There are striking parallels between the intimate terrorism of domestic violence and the mass terrorism perpetrated by lone-wolf attackers," Amanda Taub of The New York Times wrote after last year's Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting. "Both, at their most basic level, are attempts to provoke fear and assert control."
In light of this, it would seem that the smart move would be to tighten laws making it harder for abusive men to get their hands on guns they use to terrorize women and, in some cases, escalate by terrorizing the public at large. Unfortunately, many conservatives are trying to invert this logic to argue that instead of tightening gun laws, the focus should be on selling more guns — to women, who would then expected to use those guns to protect themselves against rape and domestic violence.
Last week a Republican state representative from Indiana, Jim Lucas, drew attention when he sent a letter to a local reporter who had written about helping rape survivors recover. Lucas apparently took issue with the article because it didn't put enough blame on the victims for failing to prevent their own rapes.
"After reading your front page article in the Sunday Star about the tragedy of rape, it would be nice to see a follow up article about the thousands of Hoosier women that are taking steps & learning how not to be a victim," Lucas wrote on his official Indiana legislature stationery, thereby adding an analog flourish that most mansplainers — lazily using social media to lecture female journalists — don't bother with these days.
Lucas is a big gun nut. So critics accused him of exploiting the crime of rape to push his pro-gun agenda, an impression he immediately confirmed by volunteering to pay for firearms training for women. He later offered a half-hearted apology on Facebook that was mostly a repetition of his claim that the solution to violence against women is for women to "protect themselves."
Said Jaclyn Friedman, a writer and activist against sexual violence in a phone interview, “It requires nothing of men, saying the answer to sexual assault is guns."
Friedman characterized the pro-gun argument as a "tailsman" that allows men to say, "I don’t have to change anything about myself, my life or the culture I’ve participated in. I’m just going to hand you this object and that will be the answer."
Now Friedman isn't opposed to self-defense. She spent many years herself teaching feminist self-defense courses through the IMPACT program. The problem, she said, is that research shows that guns are generally a poor method of self-defense and basically useless to ward off sexual assault.
She suggested that Rep. Lucas is imagining "a young white lady, probably a virgin, walking along, going home from church choir practice and, like, some giant, dark guy jumps out of the bushes. That’s not how most sexual violence goes down. It’s just not."
It's not just that rapists often go after women who are too high or drunk to fight back and therefore incapable of using a gun. It's that rapists — and domestic abusers — tend to target women who know them and often like or even love them.
“You’re talking about almost surely being assaulted by someone you know," Friedman said, arguing that it's unrealistic to expect a woman to kill someone who, five minutes earlier, she thought of as a friend or a date.
“When you’re talking about domestic violence and sexual assault victims, you’re talking about people who are very hesitant" to resort to lethal violence, agreed Davisha Fredericks, an Indiana activist who helps women escape from domestic violence, in a separate phone conversation.
Fredericks is a domestic violence survivor herself. She started volunteering with Everytown for Gun Safety after escaping a violent situation when the threat of gun violence was used to control her.
"If you’re in a domestic violence situation, guns do not need to be in the area," Fredericks said. Even if the woman has a gun, she continued, it might not help: "The man can basically take a gun from a woman" most of the time.
That's the problem with guns: They aren't dogs and aren't loyal to their owner. Domestic violence victims usually live with their abusers, which means that any gun a victim or a potential one brings home will also be accessible to her abuser. That's why research compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety has showed that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the chance of the woman's death 500 percent.
Friedman was skeptical that Lucas really cares about violence against women and suggested that he was just "leveraging women’s terror of men" to push for more guns in more places. After all, Lucas is the same lawmaker who in December posted a picture of a woman in a car trunk on Facebook with the caption "Wanna know who loves you more your wife or your dog? Lock them both in your trunk and see who's happy to see you when you let them out."
A month later Lucas posted another picture on Facebook, this time of a police officer pepper-spraying female protesters, with the caption "Participation trophies, now in liquid form."
Fredericks argued America needs better gun laws, not more guns, to fight violence against women. “If you can have a law that says, Hey, if you’ve been in domestic violence and you’re an abuser, you can’t have a gun; that’s a solution that stops things right there," she said. "That helps women tremendously.”
As Wednesday's shooting showed, such regulations wouldn't just help women either. A lot of men who commit acts of mass violence spend years quietly terrorizing the women in their personal life first. Stricter laws aimed at stopping men who commit violence against women from owning guns would not prevent all mass shootings. But it would very likely prevent some.
Unfortunately, for more than a decade the National Rifle Association has successfully lobbied against legislative efforts to remove guns from domestic violence situations. It has backed off a bit in the past few years and let some states move forward with such laws. As recently as February, the NRA's legislative site had a post railing against laws that require those arrested on domestic violence charges to surrender their firearms.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority whip, has an A-plus rating from the NRA. He was shot Wednesday morning by Hodgkinson, who previously was arrested in 2006 for domestic battery and discharge of a firearm. Police said he chased down his foster daughter at a friend's home, punched her friend in the face and threatened the friend's boyfriend with a shotgun. Despite this, Hodgkinson still had a right to own a gun and was the legal owner of the rifle he used to shoot five people who were playing baseball on a spring morning.