Domestic violence is a trait often shared by U.S. mass shooters, whose rage can evolve into public manifestations like the horrific scene inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Devin Patrick Kelley’s history of domestic violence — including 2012 allegations of assaulting his former wife and infant stepson, and a 2014 case of abusing his now-current wife — is a recognized precursor of lethal ends as batterers fight to maintain control, experts say.
Kelley on Sunday killed 25 people, including a woman who was pregnant, and wounded another 20 at the church in the small, rural community about 30 miles outside San Antonio. His mother-in-law, whom officials say he had sent threatening text messages, had attended the church. She wasn’t there that day. Neither was his wife.
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Kelley was in what authorities described as a “domestic situation,” which included an ongoing dispute with his wife’s family.
The lead-up to the shooting shouldn’t be described as a domestic dispute or domestic situation, but domestic violence — to the extent of “almost obliterating her existence through the community,” said Aaron Setliff, policy director at the Texas Commission on Family Violence.
Nationwide, about 57% of mass shooters killed family members between 2009 and 2015 — and about 15% of those shooters were previously accused of domestic violence, according to a study cited by the non-profit.
Those figures represent a strong link, Setliff said: it’s what he described as violence from behind closed doors erupting into public spaces.
Advocates have long said that lethal confrontations are often preceded by an escalation of power and control of abusers, who repeatedly attempt to increase fear and submission by their intended targets. What may start as verbal abuse can turn to physical abuse, threats or introducing weapons in private. For some, when that is no longer effective, it reaches a crescendo ending in homicide — sometimes to include those not directly involved.
Ready access to firearms, a history of animal cruelty — in Kelley’s case, accusations that he beat his dog, leading to a formal charge in Colorado — and ongoing domestic violence lay out a troubling path that would make a final, lethal confrontation more likely.
Kelley has repeatedly been accused of sexual violence as well.
Several recent attacks show roots or precursors in abusive relationships, including the shooting at an Orlando nightclub in 2016. The gunman’s girlfriend described routine domestic violence.
The shooter on the Las Vegas Strip, meanwhile, was reported by several media agencies to have verbally abused his girlfriend in public.
A 2016 analysis of domestic violence deaths in Texas show 146 women killed by male partners, according to the Texas commission. Another 24 people, including children, were killed in the same events.
In Texas, the most recent multi-homicide incident — also considered a domestic violence episode — was in September, when a man killed his estranged wife at a Dallas Cowboys watch party at their Plano home. Seven of their friends at the watch party were also killed.
In violent situations between family members and intimate partners, bystanders, intervenors or those who may have just been “near that power, control and rage the batterer exhibits … (can) become targets of that public display of power and control,” Setliff said.
Federal and state laws restrict or ban convicted felons and abusers from possessing or purchasing guns. In Texas, restrictions extend also to those named in protective orders for the duration of protective orders, according to victims’ advocates.
Studies indicate immediate access to guns increases the chances of homicide by a much as 500% when perpetrators have a gun in the home.
Kelley was not legally permitted to purchase the firearms used in the attack that killed victims aged 18 months to 77 years.
He was charged with assaulting his wife and stepson while serving in the Air Force. Federal officials were required to input Kelley’s information into a national database that would have blocked him from purchasing firearms following the incident, but failed to do so.
In Texas, there are no established processes to ensure convicted abusers turn over their firearms, Setliff said. The state has room to improve, he said, with greater investigation into whether a convicted abuser has surrendered his or her weapons, as well as increased prosecutions if they have not. In South Texas, several counties are working to enact such policies.
In a statement Texas Rep. Abel Herrero — who has been extensively involved in state legislation to combat family violence — did not specify increased measures that could be taken, but wrote that the Sutherland Springs shooting “is a tragic example of how domestic violence can escalate.”
“Unfortunately, this is something we have seen time and time again,” he wrote. “We must continue to do more to stop this cycle of violence.”