For every mass shooting on the national news, there are countless smaller gun-related murders the media overlooks perpetrated by angry men who can't bear rejection.
We urgently need your help. DAME reports the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. In times of crisis it is even more critical that these voices are not overlooked, but COVID-19 has impacted our ability to keep publishing. Please support our mission by joining today to help us keep reporting.
Three weeks before the deadliest mass shooting in American history—in which Steven Paddock murdered 58 people from his Las Vegas hotel room—another deadly mass shooting took place in a backyard in Plano, Texas. On September 10, a 32-year-old man went to his estranged wife’s Sunday cookout, reportedly the first social event she’d organized since filing for divorce. He shot her and seven other adults to death before he was killed by police. That tragedy was tied for second-deadliest mass shooting of the year with another killing spree on May 27 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in which a 35-year-old man, also angry at his “estranged” wife, allegedly killed five of her relatives, as well as a sheriff’s deputy and two children. He told the local media on-camera that he was hoping police would kill him.
Surprisingly, these two incidents, with 16 victims between them, were not the most infamous domestic violence murders to make national news in the past six months. Several other intimate partner killings received more widespread attention, likely because of their unusual nature. In July, a man stabbed his wife to death aboard a cruise ship, reportedly later telling a witness, “She would not stop laughing at me.” (The statement calls to mind the famous quote attributed to Margaret Atwood about domestic violence: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”) Three months earlier, in April 10, a 53-year-old man walked into a San Bernardino, California, elementary-school classroom and shot to death his wife, who was a special-ed teacher there, and her 8-year-old student, before turning the gun on himself. Six days later, a 37-year-old man named Steve Stephens, apparently distraught over difficulties with his “estranged” girlfriend, shot a random older man to death on the streets of Cleveland, live-streaming it on Facebook. Before killing him, Stephens made the victim say his ex’s name.
Those two murderous incidents in April particularly resonated with me because, nearly two weeks later, at the small newspaper chain where I work in New Jersey, a local story came across my desk: The body of a 51-year-old woman was found wrapped in blankets in Jersey City—the town just next to mine. Police arrested and charged the woman’s 56-year-old ex-boyfriend in her death. Five days later, a 23-year-old woman was killed by a 29-year-man who then turned the gun on himself—also in Jersey City. Police told the press that the two of them had had a “dating relationship.”
The upshot: It’s safe to say that for every domestic-violent murder that makes national news—whether because of its brutal nature, victim tally, school setting, or something else—there are hundreds of small incidents in our own backyards that barely receive coverage. Often, when a domestic incident or murder-suicide occurs in a community, officials reassure the public that no one else is in danger and the matter quickly fades. But what are the dangers of ignoring a national conversation about the high number of murders of “estranged” wives and girlfriends each year, especially when federally funded agencies and organizations estimate that more than 1,000 women are killed annually by someone they know? That total doesn’t include the children, relatives, and bystanders who suffer or are killed as well. (A Dallas Morning News story about the Plano mass shooting in September noted that in 2015, 158 women in Texas were murdered by an intimate partner, climbing steadily from 102 women in 2011. And those 158 murders claimed 19 collateral victims.)
It’s hard to get an exact number of “estranged” spouses and girlfriends murdered each year by partners or ex-partners in this country, as the FBI and CDC collect data in different ways and don’t always label the relationship between victim and perpetrator for public consumption. And a woman who’s been on several dates with someone doesn’t always qualify as a girlfriend or “intimate partner.” But data made available in recent years tells a dark story: In 2015, according to the non-profit Violence Policy Center, which relies on FBI homicide numbers, 1,450 women were killed by a man they knew. To break the data down more specifically in terms of relationships: A searchable online database funded by the Justice Department says that in 2013—the most recent year available—in 36 states reporting information, 322 men killed a wife, current girlfriend, or ex-wife. (This database does not include ex-girlfriends or people who were dating, numbers that would surely drive up the totals.) For comparison’s sake, that same year, according to the database, 83 women killed their current husbands, ex-husbands, or boyfriends.
As far as murder-suicides go, the American Psychological Association reports that 74 percent of all murder-suicides in the United States involve an intimate partner, and of those, 96 percent are women killed by their partners.
And this past July, the Centers for Disease Control finally made the results public of a long-term study of murders of women. According to that report, from 2003 through 2014, out of 10,018 adult women killed in 18 states, approximately 50 percent were murdered by an intimate partner. (The study did not look at murders of men.) While the number would put intimate partner murders of women at only 417 per year, the study, again, drew from 18 states.
The CDC study noted that at least 1 in 10 of the tragedies was preceded by a prior incident and thus, some may have been preventable. While the statistic could imply that 90 percent of the murders didn’t have a precedent on record, it actually begs a question: if 10 percent of these incidents are forewarned, how many can be forestalled? In other words, what can be done within our culture to combat the problem of intimate partner violence before it reaches a breaking point?
Of the many important issues that should be at the center of national consciousness right now—and not just because October is National Domestic Awareness Month—finding new ways to anticipate or head off domestic violence killings should be a priority. There are so many issues that could be woven into the discussion, putting aside for a moment the hot-button topic of gun access: What’s the best way to counsel someone who wants to leave an increasingly dangerous relationship? How can restraining orders and domestic violence laws be adjusted and improved? (The San Bernardino school shooter had two prior relationships in which restraining orders were taken out, according to media reports, and had been arrested four times between 1982 and 2013 — but without being convicted.) Perhaps more under-discussed: How can girls and boys be taught from a young age to respect their partners and accept their relationship decisions? How many parents and educators, right now, are having those discussions before college and even before high school? Are men encouraged to get mental health counseling in the same way women are? Is there enough funding for domestic violence shelters and counseling?
Clearly there could be many sorts of discussions around domestic abuse, and just like with gun access, the answers won’t be a cure-all, particularly since each tragedy has different roots – but that doesn’t mean anyone should give up completely, either.
This year, it’s been difficult to decide which tragedy to prioritize. Important issues have been shoved to the back burner, not just–of course–by natural disasters, but also by White House snafus and political wrangling, to start. On the April morning of the San Bernardino school shooting, social media users were hotly debating a Texas rally against Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, the controversial Supreme Court confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, and a doctor being dragged off a United Airlines flight the day before.
Fast-forward six months to Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the majority of social media conversation in October has focused on the Harvey Weinstein harassment and assault allegations, displacing attention from hurricane-recovery efforts, health care issues, and the Las Vegas mass shooting. The Weinstein issue, of course, is a very worthy issue that has prompted necessary conversations, but it also has something in common with the “estranged” partner murders this year: The incidents indicate a need to look at how men respond when a woman says no. (Even the Paddock issue has relevance to domestic abuse, as Starbucks workers told the media early this month that they saw Paddock verbally abuse his girlfriend when he was in public with her. More attention to all types of domestic abuse might help quell violence against women.)
One thing the small and large domestic violence killings should make clear—besides an urgent need for conversation about how to prevent these tragedies—is a continued need for a strong women’s movement that calls attention to life-or-death issues affecting our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends. Unfortunately, it seems that in the last year, various publications and individuals (particularly on the internet) have questioned the need for women’s activism, suggesting that there’s no need for modern feminism because women have more opportunities now. Since the election, I’ve seen and heard almost every mocking statement that could be made about women’s activism, and I’m guessing it’s true of most women who pay even a little attention to the news. Right after the election, I received a gleeful, belittling email from an older relative, a former Democrat who now watches only conservative news media, who wrote, “I’ve recently heard many modern women’s activists say that Susan B. Anthony and others sought equal treatment for females, not preferential.” He later criticized the women’s march by sarcastically citing Madonna as a “shining star to emulate,” as if women are so flighty that we take guidance from one celebrity on what to do, or that one person’s comment represents what all 128 million of us want or think. A different relative pointed out that when TV reporters interviewed random participants in the January women’s march, the marchers didn’t have an explanation ready for their goals (it’s not that easy to have domestic violence and rape statistics on the tip of one’s tongue or to condense a raft of complex issues into a five-second soundbite).
A gentleman on Twitter recently responded to my encouragement of a new women’s publication by complaining about feminism and saying “I’m all for equal rights, and I don’t think women receive any unequal treatment.” Perhaps he hasn’t seen the Justice Department statistics about intimate partner violence or was only thinking of the office where he works, which may be the problem.
Anyone who believes women are treated equally these days, or don’t need vocal advocates, should be reminded how many women are killed each year for saying “no.” Modern women’s groups have made domestic violence a major plank in their platform while simultaneously attempting to smash stereotypes about feminism that distract from critical issues. Caroline Dorey-Stein wrote on the website for the group Progressive Women’s Leadership, which trains women for leadership positions, “We are working to end violence against women in our nation as well as others. We are still fighting for acceptance and a true understanding of the term ‘feminism,’ … It is a term that has been unfairly associated first, with ladies in hoop skirts and ringlet curls, then followed by man-hating women.”
Domestic violence murders are, of course, not only a women’s issue, particularly since—whether the number of victims is one or eight—the killings affect generations of loved ones and friends.
Three years ago, after 22-year-old Elliot Rodger shot two California sorority girls to death, thousands of women across the country began sharing their stories of being harassed, assaulted, or intimidated. In light of the recent revived national discussion on sexual harassment and assault, we also need to revive the discussion about violence against women, particularly intimate partner violence. If first-wave feminism is remembered as focusing on voting rights, and second-wave was concerned primarily with the workplace, it’s clear that today’s women need the right to make relationship decisions without fear they’ll receive a death sentence because they said “no.”
We urgently need your help!
Covid-19 has dramatically impacted our ability to keep publishing. DAME is 100% reader funded and without additional support, we can’t keep publishing. Become a member at DAME today to help us continue reporting and shining a light on the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. Every dollar we receive from readers goes directly into funding our journalism. Please become a member today!
(If you liked this article and just want to make a one-time donation, you can do that here)