Violence Against Women and Public Mass Shootings

By Juliann Nicholson and Ellen DeVoe

The public mass shooting death toll is rising by the decade and among the ten deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, nine were committed by individuals with histories of violence against women (VAW). While news media have recently spotlighted the connections between VAW and public mass shootings, these links remain understudied. In an effort to inform prevention, our current project aims to understand the patterns of public mass shootings committed by men with VAW histories and related motivations.

We began by cross-referencing several established, publicly available databases (The Violence Project, Mother Jones, and Everytown for Gun Safety) and utilized open-source data to identify a list of public mass shooters between 1966 and 2020 with known VAW histories. To understand the role of VAW in these acts of public violence, we have developed detailed narratives of each shooter’s known VAW history and a series of variables to measure shooters’ known histories of intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual assault, stalking, harassment, child abuse, and expressed VAW fantasies. Additionally, we have created variables to measure shootings that targeted women and girls, stalking victims, current or former intimate partners, and relatives, respectively.

Preliminary findings indicate that:

  • Nearly half of public mass shooters between 1966-2020 have had known histories of VAW.
  • Most frequently perpetrated were intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
  • The number and percentage of public mass shooters with VAW histories, in particular IPV, have increased over time.

These figures are especially striking because they exclude many of the mass shooters who are most likely to have domestic violence histories: those who primarily or exclusively targeted intimate partners and family members. This was due to our adoption of the relatively restrictive Congressional Research Service definition of mass shooting, which distinguishes public mass shootings from familicide mass shootings. Further, sexual assault, IPV and stalking are vastly underreported, and media attention to these crimes has been inconsistent, limiting our ability to identify VAW histories through open-source data. It is therefore very likely that our findings are conservative.

Our next step will be to conduct statistical analyses to understand the individual, relational, and community-level patterns among shootings perpetrated by individuals with VAW histories and motivations. Data for these analyses will primarily come from The Violence Project Database of Mass Shootings in the U.S. This database, funded by the National Institute of Justice, includes approximately 200 life history variables relating to individual shooters, their childhood and adult family histories, and socio-ecological characteristics of the communities in which shootings took place.

In 2019, ending a 20-year freeze, the federal government allocated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds for studies of firearm safety. With this boon to gun violence research and the apparent increase in prevalence of VAW related mass violence in the U.S., we aim to contribute to the understanding of this public health crisis and lay groundwork for future research and prevention efforts.

About the Authors

Juliann Nicholson is a PhD candidate at the Boston University School of Social Work, where her research focuses on mothers and children in high risk contexts.

Ellen DeVoe, PhD is a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her research career has examined the impact of violence and trauma on children and parenting, and the development of intervention to mitigate these effects.

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