Texas church shooting and domestic violence: A large and disturbing pattern

The Sutherland Springs shooting looks like another example of men acting out violent rage against women

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 7, 2017 5:00AM (EST)

A bouquet of flowers lies at the base of a roadblock at the scene of the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Nov. 6, 2017. (AP/Eric Gay)
A bouquet of flowers lies at the base of a roadblock at the scene of the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Nov. 6, 2017. (AP/Eric Gay)

As more information leaks out about the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas — where 26 people were murdered and 20 more injured during Sunday church services — it's becoming clear that this almost certainly started off as a domestic violence incident. The alleged shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of such incidents. In 2012, he was court-martialed by the Air Force for an assault on his wife and child. After his divorce from that wife, police were summoned to his home in 2014 for another report of abuse, this one involving a girlfriend he would marry two months later.

Police now report that Kelley had been sending threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who frequently attended that church, though she was not present at the time of the shooting.

It's actually remarkable that there hasn't been a mass shooting of this size inspired directly by domestic violence before. Despite the mass murders of strangers that grab the most headlines, the grim reality is that one of the most common reasons that mass shooters go off is they are angry at losing control over a wife or girlfriend and decide to lash out violently. Less than two months ago, eight people were killed in a similar incident in Plano, Texas, when a man decided to take out his anger on his ex-wife and her friends at a party.

Research conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety found that 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 — defined as incidents in which four or more people besides the shooter are killed — involved the killing of a partner or at least one family member. There are certainly outlier cases; it's not clear that Adam Lanza, who murdered his mother before going on to massacre a bunch of children and school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School, had any history of domestic violence. But the typical mass shooting case is one where a man attacks a group of people in order to hurt or kill a female partner over whom he wants to exert or maintain control.

From the Everytown for Gun Safety report, it seems that Texas, a large state with lax gun laws and a deeply entrenched gun culture, has seen its fair share of this sort of crime.

  • Harris County, Texas, 2015: David Conley allegedly killed an ex-girlfriend, her husband and her six children.
  • Spring, Texas, 2014: Ronald Haskell allegedly killed the sister of his ex-wife, her husband and four children.
  • Terrell, Texas, 2013: Charles Brownlow killed his mother, his aunt, two acquaintances and a store clerk.
  • Dallas, 2013: Erbie Bowser allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend and her daughter, then allegedly went on to kill his estranged wife and her daughter.
  • Rice, Texas, 2013: Guadalupe Ronquillo-Ovalle killed her husband and three children.
  • Grapevine, Texas, 2011: Aziz Yazdanpanah killed his estranged wife, two children and three other family members on Christmas.
  • Bay City, Texas, 2011: Jose Avila-Alva killed his four children and injured his wife.
  • Grand Prairie, Texas, 2011: Tan Do killed his wife and four of her family members at his daughter’s birthday party.
  • Belleville, Texas, 2010: Maron Thomas killed his mother, stepfather, sister, brother and niece.

One of the accused killers on that list is a woman, which in all honesty is a pretty high proportion. Every single day in this country, men are killing women — and often other people around those women — because they believe women owe them submission. These stories rarely make headlines, because domestic violence, while widely seen as unfortunate, is still understood as a private and personal concern, not a political issue.

That attitude needs to change. Domestic violence is political because the ideology that drives it -- that men are superior to women and have the right to control and dominate them -- is political. It's an attitude that manifests itself regularly in our legislative and judicial politics. It's the attitude that drives the war on reproductive rights. It's the attitude that led so many Americans to vote for a profoundly unqualified and ignorant man who repeatedly bragged about sexual assault, rather than a woman with unquestioned qualifications and deep knowledge of government.

We don't treat domestic-violence murders the way we treat terrorism, but maybe we should. Terrorism, after all, is politically motivated violence meant to control the behavior of others. Its true target is the general public, and it's intended to spread a climate of fear. Abusers are terrorists in their own homes, lashing out violently against their partners and other family members periodically to keep them in their place. It's controlling and often political behavior, motivated by rigid ideas about gender and who is and is not allowed autonomy in a family or household.

Domestic murderers share another quality with terrorists, such as those inspired by ISIS: They are often willing to die for their beliefs. In 56 percent of cases of domestic violence-related mass murder analyzed by Everytown, the killer committed suicide. These are men (and, yes, the occasional woman) who make their last act on earth an explosion of anger meant to display their power and dominance over people who, at some point, had loved them.

We often treat this kind of violence more like a weather event than like a preventable crime. President Donald Trump, who obsessed for a week straight about the deaths of eight people in the New York attack staged by an Uzbek immigrant, barely pretended to give a crap about a white guy killing a church full of people.

"This isn't a guns situation," our president said. "This is a mental health problem at the highest level."

But dismissing domestic violence as a mental health problem is, in fact, a common avoidance strategy. It's easier to believe that men treat women like disposable property because of some unexplained mental disorder than to accept that such men are picking up on societal messages — such as electing an anti-choice pussy-grabbing woman-hater to the White House — that normalize misogyny.

Domestic violence is not inevitable or biological in origin. It stems from attitudes, and attitudes can be changed. We can decide, together, to stop treating domestic violence like a private problem. We can start enforcing laws to keep abusers from buying guns. We can stop electing overt misogynists to office. We can stop normalizing the hateful attitudes towards women that fuel this. We can fix this. But only if we want to.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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