“Mental health is your problem here,” Donald Trump said in a press conference early Monday morning. Trump was addressing the cause, or what he believes to be the cause, of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The latest in a seemingly unbroken timeline of mass shootings which this time left 26 dead, Trump reiterated the Republican talking points that have emerged in the aftermath of mass shootings: a quick recitation of “thoughts and prayers,” followed by a move to place the cause on mental health, meanwhile reassuring their base that the easy access to assault weapons is not the problem but rather the solution. “This isn’t a guns situation,” Trump said as he directed the blame at the behavior of a “very deranged individual [with] a lot of problems over a long period of time.”
Trump’s treatment of the mass shooter as a kind of anomaly, produced by mental instability, seemed to purposefully overlook one glaring point: the Texas shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, had been court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child. According to a spokesperson for the Air Force, Kelley had been sentenced to 12 months of confinement and given a “bad conduct” discharge (it’s unclear why he received a “bad conduct” discharge rather than a dishonorable discharge as initially reported). On Monday morning, local authorities confirmed that Kelley’s former in-laws attended the Sutherland Springs church and he also attended the church “from time to time.”
The link between domestic violence and mass shootings is increasingly and undeniably clear. In 2017, the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety crunched numbers from FBI data and news reports finding that “domestic violence is a driving factor in mass shootings.” Not only is domestic violence the cause of the “majority of mass shootings—54 percent of cases—were related to domestic or family violence,” but a significant number of mass shooters between 2009 and 2015 had a previous domestic violence charge. A quick, ugly roster of mass shooters in the last few years repeats the narrative we see so quickly accumulating around Sutherland Springs. Thoughts and prayers, followed by blame placed either on international terrorism or mental health, depending on the shooter’s nationality.
Direct links to domestic violence largely go unmentioned by policymakers, instead, that narrative is overwhelmed by questions of motive or sanity and the constitutional right to unfettered gun ownership. That was true in the case of the Las Vegas shooting, the Pulse shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the Alexandria shooting. Each of those shooters had a history of abusing women. This story has been written over and over again; we know that domestic violence has a strong and clear link to mass shootings and yet, lawmakers and those in control of public policy look to find answers everywhere but in the violence rendered against women. “I don’t think this is a random act of shooting... but obviously someone who is very deranged,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on the Today show.
Perhaps the problem itself is built into the language itself—“domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence,” implies that the act is inherently a private one, done inside the confines of a home, barely affecting the public. The women who are abused or stalked are coded in this narrative, not as citizens whose rights are infringed upon, but as wives or girlfriends who had the misfortune of being with (or simply near) the wrong man. And then too there is the idea that domestic violence isn’t a violent anomaly that predicts public violent behavior but something that is just a simple fact of life. The mass shooter is “deranged,” an anomaly of humanity, but the man who abuses his wife or stalks his classmates or writes angry misogynistic manifestos is too familiar to be newsworthy.
What Margaret Talbot described as “misogynistic anger” is so often coded as quotidian, as a kind of natural attitude or expression. Violence against women is a phrase so often repeated, so often treated as “conversation” or an individual “issue,” that it fails to conjure up an act of violence with deadly implications. It fails to see that domestic violence is not the private act of an individual and that its eruption into a massive deadly act is not solely the act of a “very deranged individual.” Of course, we will hear that we have laws to prevent abusers from buying guns. The Lautenberg Amendment bans those who have been convicted of domestic violence from owning guns. But the law, Talbot notes, is “spottily enforced.”
These regulations are only effective if states put in place a screening process for potential gun buyers, to see if they have restraining orders against them—and many states have not.
It’s increasingly clear that Lautenberg and the patchwork of state laws are not enough. The gaps in the law are so sizable that they’re deadly, but politically, we seem to have little to no national will to close them. Instead, this narrative cycle will keep replaying itself on a bloody loop. The pro-gun lobby will choose the kernel of what they perceive to be heroism: celebrate the good guy with a gun (even though that may not be true) while simultaneously pointing to individual mental instability. Culture remains unexamined while a crime that left 26 dead is coded as the work of a singular “deranged” individual. This was certainly true during Trump’s brief comments this morning.
“Fortunately someone else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction,” Trump said, adding that without the private citizen who pursued and shot Kelley, it “would have been much worse.” “This is mental health problem at the highest level,” Trump added. “This is a sad event and these are great people.” He did not say a single word about domestic violence.
Update: Since finishing this post this morning, more and more information on Kelley’s history of domestic violence has come to light. Numerous outlets have reported that in 2012, Kelley was charged with “assault on his spouse and assault on their child.” According to former Air Force prosecutor Don Christensen, Kelley fractured his stepson’s skull and “pled to intentionally doing it.” He received only a year of prison time. It’s currently unclear how Kelley purchased his gun. Christensen told NPR that Kelley’s court-martial should have prevented him from owning a weapon. Kelly’s “conviction was punishable by 5 years,” NPR reports, but despite the reduced sentence, the one year sentence should have “triggered [the] federal ban.” The conviction for domestic assault, Christensen said, should have also triggered Lautenberg.
Again, it’s unclear whether or not Kelley went through a background check and, if he did, what that check revealed. Regardless, any access he had to an assault weapon raises a series of questions about the ability of convicted domestic abusers to obtain a gun.