On November 5th, 2017 at least 26 people in a Texas church were murdered in a mass shooting. The alleged shooter also died, apparently shooting himself. Presumably, this mass shooting will follow the usual pattern. Many on the right will say that it should not be politicized and that the real issue is not guns but mental health. Apparently only violence by minorities should be politicized. Many on the left will say, once more, that something needs to be done about gun violence.
While they get the spotlight, mass shootings make up a very small percentage of gun deaths in the United States. As such, it is true that focusing on mass shootings might not have a significant impact on gun deaths. However, their infamy does serve to focus public attention and thus provide a potential motivation to address broader problems relating to violence.
One rather unsurprising factor in mass shootings is that in at least 54% of them, the perpetrator also shot an intimate partner or relative. Mass shooters tend to have a history of domestic violence and the latest alleged shooter fits this pattern. The alleged shooter was court-martialed and imprisoned for assaulting his wife and child. Apparently, the alleged shooter’s mother-in-law attended the church. She was not, however, present when the shooting took place. This is not to say that engaging in domestic violence causes a person to engage in mass murder. To assume this because they correlate would be to fall into a causal fallacy (X correlates with Y, so X must cause Y). It would also be a causal error (ignoring a possible common cause) to infer that one must cause the other. What seems quite likely is that the factors that play a role in a person engaging in domestic violence also serve as casual factors in a person engaging in a mass shooting. While the above facts are worrisome, there are some that are even more disturbing.
Domestic violence is common in the United States and a woman has about a one in three chance of being the victim of violence inflicted by a male partner. While mass shootings get the headlines, of the 1,615 women murdered by men in 2013 in single victim incidents, 94% of the women were killed by someone they knew. 62% were the wife or intimate acquaintance of the killer. While some political rhetoric claims that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, when a gun is present in a domestic violence incident, the chance of a homicide occurring increases 500%. Since many lawmakers are very worried about the alleged threat of transgender bathroom use to women, one would think they would have long ago rushed to address the problem of domestic violence. After all, no woman seems to have ever been harmed by allowing transgender people to use the bathroom they wish. Unfortunately, in their transgender terror, legislators seem to have largely forgotten about this very real danger.
While federal law does forbid people convicted of domestic violence offenses from buying guns, most states allow such people to buy guns anyway. The federal law also has an infamous “boyfriend loophole” so that a person convicted of assaulting a woman he is not married to is not prevented from buying guns. There are also various other weak points in the system, such as the possibility that information about domestic violence convictions will not be in the database for background checks and the fact that a protective order does not forbid a person from buying and keeping firearms in most of the states. While some might suggest that a woman in danger get a gun of her own, this increases the chances (five times) that the woman will be murdered by an abuser.
While there have been some efforts to address domestic violence, such as those taken by former Governor Nikki Haley, there is obviously much that needs to be done. As the above data indicates, guns are a key factor in the problem and are certainly not the solution. One modest proposal, that has been pushed for years, is the closing of the “boyfriend loophole” mentioned above. Other proposals have imposing more restrictions on those convicted of domestic violence offenses regarding gun ownership and purchasing. Such restrictions could certainly help to reduce the murder rate regarding domestic violence and, given the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, also the rate of mass shootings.
One obvious objection is that while most mass shooters have some history of domestic violence, not all of them do. As such, restrictions aimed at domestic violence perpetrators would not address all future cases of mass shootings.
While this is a reasonable point, addressing mass shootings need not be limited to this one factor. Also, even if it were, it would still address the majority of those who engage in mass shootings—namely domestic abusers.
It could be argued that trying to address mass shootings by addressing domestic violence would be using the spotlight on mass shootings to take gun rights away from domestic abusers. The easy and obvious reply is that being convicted of domestic abuse and being an ongoing threat would be grounds for such restrictions, even without considering mass shootings. That is, domestic abusers would seem to show that they cannot properly exercise their right to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that they should be stripped of the right forever, any more than a convicted felon should lose their voting rights forever. There is, of course, the practical problem of sorting out when a person is such a potential threat that they need to have their rights curtailed and when they are no longer a danger and are once again capable of exercising their rights without being a danger to others.
It might also be objected that while no one wants women to be murdered, laws aimed at protecting women by restricting the gun rights of men would encourage women to lie (perhaps out of fear) to get guns taken away from men.
The concern that people will misuse laws by lying is obviously not unique to such gun-focused laws; it is a potential problem for almost any law. Because of this, there should be adequate safeguards to ensure that people are not falsely and unjustly deprived of their rights (which is something that should occur with all laws). There is also the pragmatic point that such cases of conniving women lying to take the guns of men would presumably be exceedingly rare. However, should it turn out that this is a real problem, then it can be addressed and guarded against.
One point that will certainly be brought up is that many regard the constitution as ensuring the right of the individual to keep and bear arms. As such, imposing restrictions on gun ownership simply because a person has engaged in domestic violence would not be justified.
While rights should be protected, they are not absolute. One reason for this is the obvious facts that rights can come into conflict. Another obvious reason is that just punishment and just safety concerns warrant restricting rights. A person who has done wrong can justly have their property rights and liberty imposed upon—such as being compelled to pay a fine or serve time. Gun rights are not magically exempt from this—someone who presents a clear and present danger can justly have their gun rights imposed upon, just as they can have their liberty imposed upon (such as in a restraining order).