Everyone knows what’s supposed to happen on Valentine’s Day. The boy, always the boy, buys the girl roses, red, and maybe some jewelry or a fluffy teddy bear. They share a romantic dinner by candlelight, profess their love for each other. No other holiday reinforces outdated gender norms quite like it.
But the strange boy who was missing a mother and liked to kill animals and boasted about his growing gun collection didn’t have a girl, like he thought he should. And he wasn’t about to let anyone else celebrate love either. Instead of flowers or chocolates, he brought an AR-15 rifle to school.
I was on vacation in New Zealand, sitting in a hot car with my sister, when my phone lit up with a push alert. “At least 17 people were killed in a South Florida high school shooting,” it read. I gasped.
“What?” my sister asked, raising an eyebrow. “Another school shooting,” I replied. “Oh,” she said flatly, unsurprised.
To her, and many people who live overseas, America is essentially synonymous with mass shootings. She assumes they just happen all the time. And she’s not wrong. Three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have occurred in the last five months alone. (In New Zealand, police officers don’t even routinely carry firearms.)
Immediately, I wondered if the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had a history of violence against women. It didn’t take long to find out. Multiple students told reporters that he was abusive toward a girlfriend. Once she broke it off and began dating someone else, Cruz got into physical fights with her new boyfriend and later threatened to kill him, according to Instagram messages shared with BuzzFeed.
“You fucking cunt stole my ex you cunt,” Cruz wrote, sending a photo of his firearm collection. “Iam going to fucking kill you… Iam going to watch ypu bleed [sic].”
Cruz was also abusive toward his mother. He hit his mother with the hose of a vacuum cleaner and called her a “useless bitch,” according to police reports obtained by CNN. Of course.
In America, the eternal subtext of acts of mass violence is toxic masculinity. If you look hard enough, it’s always there.
The men who commit mass-casualty atrocities are almost unfailingly abusers, empowered by easily accessible firearms that lend them the exhilarating feeling of control that they so desperately desire.
They leave behind a trail of hurt women: mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives.
They are angry, aggrieved, resentful and driven by a sense of entitlement. They deserved the girl or the promotion or the apartment. If they fail ― in school, in their professional pursuits, in their romantic encounters ― it is because the odds were unfairly stacked against them. Someone, perhaps everyone, wronged them. They are the victim; everyone else must pay.
This is the abuser mentality. And when abusers have guns, women die.
One simple reason why we find abuse in the histories of these violent men is that domestic violence is common. About 1 in 4 women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. Among high school girls, 21 percent have suffered physical or sexual dating violence.
I’ve been reporting on the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings since 2015. We know, from research compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, that in the majority of mass shootings, the perpetrator kills an intimate partner or another family member. These shootings often take place inside a home, and don’t make the news. But even in cases where the shooter attacks the public, slaughtering indiscriminately like Cruz did last week, many perpetrators have exhibited a pattern of violence against women.
Adam Lanza killed his mother before his rampage through Sandy Hook elementary school. Omar Mateen beat both his wives before opening fire on revelers in Pulse nightclub. Devin Patrick Kelley, the Sutherland Springs shooter, got kicked out of the Air Force for domestic violence, and was accused of sexual assault. The Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, berated his girlfriend in public. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people on a rampage near UC Santa Barbara’s campus, splashed two “hot blonde girls” with his Starbucks latte because they didn’t smile at him. (Cruz may also have admired him. On YouTube, a user going by ‘Nikolas Cruz’ commented “Elliot rodger will not be forgotten,” on a video a year ago.)
I’ve written about the connection between violence against women and mass shootings so often that I had to ask the standards editor at HuffPost about self-plagiarism. I didn’t want to get in trouble for repeating myself. There’s only so many ways to say the same exact thing, over and over again.
These days, the message is starting to get through. We must “memorize” domestic violence as a warning sign for mass shootings, a recent Washington Post editorial cautioned. “Our lives depend on it.” It’s an easy message to get behind: Men who are violent in public are often violent at home, which creates a good opportunity for intervention. So let’s do something!
But when we see violence against women as simply a red flag for future violence against others, it’s indicative of a bigger, more urgent problem. Twenty-four years after the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law, domestic violence is still overlooked and excused, perceived as a private affair instead of a public health issue.
The most recent high-profile example came from the White House, when it emerged that one of President Trump’s top aides had been accused of physical abuse by both of his ex-wives. Despite the highly credible claims of abuse, Rob Porter was hired and celebrated, elevated to a position of immense power. Those who could have stopped him looked at the evidence, and decided the harm he caused was not serious enough to stop his rise. It was minor, seemingly unconnected to his ability to do his job.
The women’s pain meant nothing.
It’s that attitude that leads domestic abusers to have access to firearms, despite federal and state laws to stop them. The nation’s background check system is designed to keep firearms away from dangerous individuals like Cruz. But it relies on criminal convictions, not allegations of abuse.
Authorities responded to 36 emergency 911 calls from Cruz’s family home between 2010 and 2016, including incidents that were categorized as “mentally ill person,” “child/elderly abuse,” and “domestic disturbance.” As far as we know, Cruz was never arrested or charged with a crime.
Without having access to the full police reports, it’s hard to know exactly what Cruz’s mother experienced in those years, but we have a glimpse and it’s not pretty. She told police that Cruz threatened her, was frequently violent and erratic, threw things across the room, punched a hole in the wall, hit her with an object, and called her names.
If Cruz had been convicted of a domestic violence offense, even a misdemeanor, federal law would have blocked him from purchasing firearms. But his behavior was not perceived as worthy of criminal intervention. And so he was legally allowed to arm himself to his heart’s desire. And to abuse his mother, undeterred, for years.
If we took domestic violence seriously― not just because it is a red flag for future violence, but because of the harm it does on its own ― we could indeed save lives. We could save American girls and women from being collateral damage. We could save the U.S. from itself.
Melissa Jeltsen is a senior reporter for HuffPost.