POLITICS
08/25/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2017

We're Missing The Big Picture On Mass Shootings

Most take place inside the home and are anything but random.

Stringer . / Reuters
David Conley is accused of killing his former girlfriend, her husband and six children in a mass shooting. A former teammate and fellow student help escort the casket of one of the children.

It felt like a summer of mass shootings.

You probably heard about the killings in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white gunman opened fire inside a historic black church, and the shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana, where a man targeted moviegoers inside a darkened theater. Or the shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where an armed attacker sprayed a military recruitment center with bullets.

Here’s one you may not have heard about.

On Aug. 8, David Conley allegedly broke into his ex-girlfriend Valerie Jackson’s house in Houston, Texas, and killed her, her husband and her six children, methodically shooting each one in the head. Jackson had recently dumped Conley and reunited with her husband after Conley allegedly smashed her head into a refrigerator. When she reconciled with her husband, she changed the locks on her house. So Conley climbed in a window.

Although they get the lion’s share of media attention, public mass shootings like the ones in Charleston, Lafayette and Chattanooga aren’t representative of the typical mass shooting in the U.S.

Most are like the one Conley allegedly committed. The majority of mass shootings in the U.S. take place in private. They occur in the home, and the victims are predominantly women and children.

The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence. It is one of men (yes, mostly men) targeting and killing their wives or ex-girlfriends or families. The victims are intimately familiar to the shooters, not random strangers. This kind of violence is not indiscriminate ― though friends, neighbors and bystanders are often killed alongside the intended targets.

The Huffington Post analyzed five years of mass shooting data compiled by Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization backed by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. We looked at shootings in which at least four people were killed with a gun (the common definition of mass shootings, though there is debate over the best way to define them).

We found that in 57 percent of mass shootings, the shooter targeted either a family member or an intimate partner. According to HuffPost’s analysis, 64 percent of mass shooting victims were women and children. That’s startling, since women typically make up only 15 percent of total gun violence homicide victims, and children only 7 percent. 


70%
of mass shooting incidents occurred at home

42%
of mass shooting incidents involved a current or former intimate partner

57%
of mass shooting incidents involved a current/former intimate partner or family member
Source: Everytown; Illustrations: Philip Glenn, Dream Icons, Leonardo Schneider for the Noun Project; Graphic: Alissa Scheller/The Huffington Post

In the graphic below, you can see all mass shooting victims between 2009 and July 2015. We've highlighted both intimate partner-related shootings and family violence shootings. In the first type of shooting, a perpetrator targeted an intimate partner, although other members of the family, including children, may also have been killed. In family violence shootings, a perpetrator targeted relatives (parents, siblings) who were not intimate partners.

Note: In highlighted yellow incidents, family members may have been killed as well. A shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December 2012 in which 27 people were killed, including 20 children, is included here as an incident in which a family member was killed because the shooter killed his mother, though none of the other victims were related to him.
Source: Everytown; Illustrations: Gettystock; Graphic: Alissa Scheller/The Huffington Post

If you look strictly at the 57 percent of mass shootings that involved an intimate partner or another family member, 81 percent of the victims were women and children.

Gender and age of victims of mass shooting events, 2009-July 2015
Source: Everytown; Graphic: Alissa Scheller/The Huffington Post

Part of the reason mass shootings that happen in public are so frightening -- and the reason they receive national attention -- is because they are often unpredictable. The victims bear no discernible relationship to the shooter; they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. These public acts of bloodshed create the perception that all of us are vulnerable to acts of indiscriminate violence at any waking moment; that there is nowhere safe from harm.  

But mass shootings that happen in the home are not unpredictable. They’re frequently preceded by a flurry of red flags: 911 calls, hospitalizations, broken protective orders, repeat arrests, contentious custody battles, death threats and stalking. Before Conley allegedly killed Jackson and her entire family, he had already threatened her life multiple times and she had at least one protective order against him. At the time of her death, he was wanted on an outstanding warrant for aggravated assault.

Thanks to years of research, we know many of the risk factors for domestic homicides. Some police departments across the country are now screening women using a tool called lethality assessment to identify those at highest risk of being killed. We know that women are at a higher risk of being killed when they are attempting to leave an abusive partner, and during the period immediately after fleeing. We also know that if a woman has previously been strangled by her partner, it's an important predictor that he will later try to murder her.

And if an abuser has access to a gun, the victim is eight times more likely to be killed.

Experts often call domestic homicides the most predictable and preventable of all homicides, because of the many warning signs. “If we want to dramatically reduce the number of mass shootings, we could pay a lot more attention to domestic violence at an earlier stage,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network To End Domestic Violence. “Many domestic homicides could be prevented with appropriate intervention and services.”

Mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of gun deaths each year, but it’s clear who overwhelmingly pays the price: Women and children.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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