Triggers

Photo by Quentin Kemmel on Unsplash
I'm realizing that although I have at least two degrees of separation from any mass shooting, these school shootings and other mass shootings are still something of a trigger for me. It's at least in part related to the 2013 shooting deaths of Chris Keith and Isaac Miller. Chris Keith was a former member of my church. She and her son Isaac were killed in an act of domestic violence, by her estranged husband.

Like the killer in the recent school shooting, Chris's killer was a known threat. These are the things I know about her killer: He had been abusive of Chris for some time. Chris minimized the abuse when talking to me, saying it was the first time, when it wasn't, but she wasn't ready to leave. What I didn't know, but found out after her death was that authorities had been called all the way back in 2003, before I met her. In the news it was revealed that Chris had taken out a personal protection order against him at one time. Chris had said, "Threats of shooting me to death with one of his hunting rifles were par for the course," in her personal protection order (source). She also said he was diagnosed with depression, and in 2011 he "stayed in bed for nearly the entire year, only rarely getting up other than to use the bathroom... At least once a week, he told me if I ever left him he would kill me." And eventually Chris withdrew the personal protection order. And I also know that her killer had been previously reported to CPS for what I consider to be violence against a child, because my religious education coordinator and I reported it -- and Chris told me that CPS had followed up on it, but it was an incident that had been previously investigated by that point.

These are the things I heard second-hand, from friends of Chris: Her killer had numerous run-ins with the police around domestic violence, including a recent incident. In response, he checked himself voluntarily in to a psychiatric unit, and the police took his guns. Even though these were known things about him, he hadn't been convicted of domestic violence, and he hadn't been convicted of child abuse, and he hadn't been involuntarily committed for mental illness. So his guns were returned, because there were no laws that could keep them from him. So he took his biological children to visit his parents for the night, for an early Christmas celebration, and then he killed his wife and step-son -- and himself.

It's taken a while for people to fully understand this, but we now know that many of these mass shooting killers are also men who have committed domestic violence. There is a link there between these larger events and the domestic violence events that happen every day. Everytown for Gun Safety says that 54% of the mass shooters between 2009 and 2016 were known to have committed domestic violence in their past. That's the domestic violence we know about, which means the real rates may be higher.

Domestic violence is mass murder, too, although we don't really understand it that way. Nearly three people per day are killed in acts of domestic violence.

The keys to solving mass shootings are the same keys to solving domestic violence, both in the need for gun control, and in the need for greater background checks and the work of mental wellness.
But we're not solving domestic violence murders with background checks, because too often the domestic violence is unreported, or, like in Chris's case, the victim pulls a protective order or doesn't follow through on prosecution. We know this is the case, again and again, in domestic violence. So banning gun ownership of people who are convicted of domestic violence, while a good step, is not going to catch most of these people. It's only after the deaths that we hear the stories of repeated abuse. Chris's friends and family (and clergy) had some idea what she endured, and wanted to help her to get out, and she did separate from her abuser, but it wasn't enough to stop him from killing her.

The same is true for focusing on mental illness -- too many people are undiagnosed, and most people who are diagnosed will never commit a violent crime -- so it won't do the job of stopping these killers.
But if we stop domestic violence entirely -- look at and understand the roots of domestic violence, treat people at the root causes -- we might address a lot of these mass shooting incidents as well. This includes looking at how masculinity is constructed in our culture, and recognizing the ways that this construct of gender can turn toxic and violent. It includes a better understanding of mental illness and mental wellness. It includes working with children, so that we can break the cycle of abuse over generations. It includes teaching things like self-control, understanding triggers, empathy, and resilience. In short, we need to teach love, and not the fantasy love that leads to domestic violence, but a real agape love and an ethic of care.

And none of that may ever be enough. Violence happens in liberal religious communities, it happens in rich families and educated families and liberal families. And it will evade our attempts to address it over and over again. It lives and grows in secrecy and shadows. So this is not meant to be a substitute for gun reform. The ability to purchase weapons designed to kill and do so quickly increases the deaths in these situations. Our society should be able to stop access to these weapons like the AR-15, which are unnecessary for either sport or personal protection. And we need to make it so that a man like Chris Keith's killer won't be able to get those guns back, when we know as much as we know about him, and so that the recent killer, who was a clearly known threat, won't be able to walk into a store and legally purchase a gun, either. And when we do so, the body count in our mass killings will go down.

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