A few years ago, one of our studies found that 57 percent of adult Texans reported knowing a friend, family member or co-worker in an abusive relationship. One in three adult Texans experienced family violence in their lifetime, and more than a third of Texans said that family violence is a very serious problem. And then there is this: The majority of Texans think that the state is not providing enough assistance.
During decades of providing formal services to victims and their families, we have learned a driving theme that applies not just to Texas, but our country: The complexities of domestic violence offenders and their victims’ lives are misunderstood, marginalized and considered private. Until it’s not. And the result can be deadly.
Past violence doesn’t always predict future violence, but in more than half of the mass shootings, it does. We can do more because the warning signs are present more often than one might think.
The shooting in Sutherland Springs is the latest example. We could scapegoat the Air Force for its egregious procedural error — yes, they absolutely should have submitted the critical information to keep Devin Patrick Kelley from being able to purchase a firearm — but the fact remains that access to guns will always be available in this country. We can all agree that the possession of firearms by domestic violence offenders increases the risk of homicide for their family members and others.
But this issue goes beyond that. We need to reject the idea that domestic violence and mass shootings are part of the fabric of our lives, and to do that, we have to make some changes.
We first have to admit our mistakes. Our dependency on the criminal justice system to “solve” family violence has resulted in an ineradicable problem because it is ill prepared. As a system, it only acknowledges criminal behaviors, but much of family violence is about strategies and patterns of behavior. Some of these behaviors are kind and loving, while others are coercive and hurtful.
Second, we must realize that family violence is a confusing and thorny issue that affects everybody: the victim, children and extended family, and the abuser. It is among the most nuanced of all violent crimes and nonviolent behaviors. Devin Kelley was a mass murderer, but to some he was a longtime friend … who as a teenager was friendly if awkward. The complexity of family violence lies in the relationship between the offender and victim, the tenacity of the offender’s behaviors over time, the relationship that the offender has with his community and others, the lack of consistent reporting, and under-resourced services for victims and offenders.
Finally, we must move ahead knowing that progressive intervention, meaningful offender accountability, and victim safety are critical to any solution. Offender interventions must be widely available, thoughtful and evidence-based, and definitions of success must go beyond simply not being re-arrested and completing a batterer’s intervention course.
Many of us know someone who has either caused or has been on the receiving end of domestic violence. We do. We’ve studied it for years. The red flags are there. We know that most who perpetrate domestic violence will never become mass shooters — and that’s a good thing. But there are outliers. Kelley showed those warning signs. As a country, more of us need to understand that the progression of domestic violence and the seeds of mass shootings start long before something happens. Violence should not be a legacy issue. And if we want things to change, we need to say: Enough.
Noël Busch-Armendariz is a University Presidential Professor and director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
Margaret Bassett is the deputy director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.