Most mass killers are men who also attacked their families

  • Research indicates that many mass killers have a history of domestic abuse and violence towards their wives and girlfriends.
  • Up to 30% of domestic violence cases go unregistered resulting in the abuser's gun rights remaining intact.
  • If police wait for broken bones, they miss more than 95 percent of domestic violence incidents.  An average of 50 American women are shot to death each month by a current or former intimate partner.
  • Most abusers will not become mass killers, but effective domestic violence laws might keep us all safer.


What do most mass killers have in common?

As a researcher who studies coercive control in intimate relationships, I can point out a few key characteristics. First, they are men. Additionally, they have a history of controlling and abusing their wives and girlfriends – and sometimes other family members – before "graduating" to mass killings.

Considering a few recent examples makes the pattern clearer.

Mass shooters practice at home

Devin P. Kelley, 26, who shot to death 26 people and injured 20 more at a Texas church on Nov. 5, had kicked, beaten and choked his first wife and infant stepson, fracturing the baby’s skull. In the following years, he was investigated for other charges of violence against women including sexual assault and rape.

Since 1996, those convicted of domestic violence – even misdemeanor offenses – are supposed to be entered into the National Criminal Information Database and permanently barred from legally purchasing guns. However, Air Force officials neglected to register Kelley’s conviction, leaving him free to walk into a sporting goods store and purchase the rifle used to murder Texas churchgoers. A congressional report determined such registration failures happen at least 30 percent of the time.

The deadliest mass shootings in the US since 1900
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The deadliest mass shootings in the US since 1900

On October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada, gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers below from the windows of his suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. 

As of October 3, at least 59 people are dead and over 500 injured in what became the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. 

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Five Dallas police officers were shot and killed by Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, as they guarded a group of protesters on July 7, 2016.

(Photo via REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen opened fire inside Pulse Nightclub, a well-known LGBT club in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring 58. 

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, opened fire on the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon, killing nine people and wounding nine others before he was shot dead by police on October 1, 2015.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

White supremacist Dylann Roof, 21, opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a bible study, leaving nine churchgoers dead on June 18, 2015. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Rival motorcycle gangs killed nine at a restaurant in Waco, Texas, on May 18, 2015. More than 190 people are arrested. 

(REUTERS/Waco Police Department/Handout)

Fourteen people were killed and 22 were wounded when married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked a service center for people with developmental disabilities during its holiday party in San Bernadino, California, on Dec. 2, 2015.

(Photo by Barbara Davidson/The Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A college student killed six people, three in his apartment and others on the streets of Isla Vista, California, on May 23, 2014. The mentally ill gunman committed suicide.

(Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A former Navy reservist working as a government contractor killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013. He was shot dead by police.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six school staff members.

(Photo by James Keivom/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

A masked gunman killed 12 people and wounded 70 when he opened fire on July 20, 2012, at a midnight premiere of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Denver.

(REUTERS/Evan Semon)

A white supremacist opened fire in the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 6, 2012, killing six people. 

(REUTERS/John Gress)

Then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was the target of an assassination attempt by a gunman in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 8, 2011. More than a dozen other people were injured and six people were killed at a public event entitled 'Congress on Your Corner' when a gunman opened fire.

(Photo by James Palka/Getty Images)

U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an army psychiatrist, killed 13 people and wounded 30 in a shooting at Fort Hood military base on November 5, 2009.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On April 3, 2009, 41-year-old Jiverly Antares Wong killed 13 people inside an immigration center in Binghamton, New York.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On April 16, 2007, gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. 

(Photo by Ted Richardson/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)

A gunman killed five girls in a one-room Amish schoolhouse October 2, 2006, in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The man entered the school, let the boys go free, tied up the girls and shot them execution-style before killing himself.

(Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Two men, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, ambushed 13 people, killing 10 of them, in sniper-style shootings that terrorized the Washington D.C. area for three weeks in October 2002. Muhammad was executed and Malvo was sentenced to life in prison. 

(Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Columbine High School massacre was perpetrated by students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed 12 fellow students and one teacher on April 20, 1999.

(Photo via REUTERS/Gary Caskey GCC/HB)

George Hennard killed 23 people and injured 27 others when he attacked Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, on October 16, 1991. 

(Photo by Gaylon Wampler/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

James Huberty, pictured here, shot and killed 21 people and hurt 19 others at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California, on July 18, 1984. 

(Photo via Getty Images)

Student Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas where he shot and killed 13 people after killing his mother and wife on August 1, 1966. 

(Photo via Getty Images)

The Ludlow massacre took place when members of the Colorado National Guard as well as other militiamen shot down 19 striking coal miners in 1914. 

(Photo via the Denver Post via Getty Images)


Esteban Santiago, charged with killing five travelers in a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport in January 2017, was previously accused of assaulting and strangling his girlfriend.

Spencer Hight shot and killed his estranged wife and seven of her friends who had gathered to watch football on TV in Plano, Texas. These family-based mass shootings rarely gain the same kind of publicity as those conducted in public, perhaps because the average person mistakenly thinks they can avoid being victimized if the shooting occurs "in the family."

From Jan. 1 to Nov. 5, 2017, the U.S. experienced 307 mass shootings, which the government defines as a shooting that kills or injures four or more people.

However, not all domestic violence perpetrators who become mass killers use guns.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who planned and executed the Boston Marathon bombing along with his younger brother, had been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who plowed a truck through a crowd in Nice, France in 2016, killing 82, and Khalid Masood, who killed five and injured 50 driving through a crowd in Westminster, London, both controlled and abused the women in their lives.

An obvious question arises. If domestic violence laws were more effective, could perpetrators be caught earlier? Could they be deprived of their access to weapons, jailed when necessary and given the kinds of intensive intervention and supervision that would curb their behavior? In other words, could stronger domestic violence laws prevent some mass shootings?

Less family violence, fewer mass shootings

The laws in the U.S. that are currently used to address domestic violence were developed for attacks by unrelated people. They don’t work so well for what happens in families.

A bar fight is over when the violence ends, but abusive violence in couples does not end. In as many as 40 percent of cases, the abuser assaults his partner several times a week and sometimes daily, often over many years. Most domestic violence incidents involve pushes, slaps, kicks, pulling hair and the like. If police wait for broken bones, they miss more than 95 percent of domestic violence incidents. As Evan Stark of Rutgers University points out, the seriousness of partner violence derives from the cumulative weight of all previous abuse, rather than the severity of a particular assault. U.S. law does not adequately address these "minor" violent incidents, nor the constant intimidation, harassment, monitoring and the limiting of a partner’s freedom that is so typical of violent control in couples.

In 2015, England and Wales made controlling a current or former partner a serious crime. This new offense recognizes the harm that can result from an ongoing pattern of controlling behavior. A relative of Westminster car attacker Masood’s ex-wife is quoted in The Guardian describing their relationship: "He was very violent towards her, controlling in every aspect of her life – what she wore, where she went, everything."

Masood’s behavior is an example of coercive control. Coercive control combines tactics designed to instill fear, like violence and threats, with tactics that isolate a partner, degrade her and deprive her of basic rights. Eighty percent of abused women are being coercively controlled and not simply hit. In the U.K., police and prosecutors have undergone intensive training related to the criminalization of coercive control. Police have learned to use an incident of reported domestic violence as a window through which to examine the entire relationship.

One of the earliest convictions for coercive control concerns a 30-year-old named Nigel Wolitter, who was arrested for vandalizing machinery belonging to his partner’s family to punish her for refusing to give him money for marijuana. As a result of their new training, police traced Wolitter’s vandalism to a 13-year pattern of dominating his girlfriend. The prosecution linked photos of injuries from his partner’s cellphone with her compelling testimony that he had "controlled every aspect of my life from where I went to what I wore, to what possessions he allowed me to own." Wolitter received a 4.5-year sentence.

It’s the pattern of enforced subordination that is the problem here, not one or two incidents. Changing the domestic violence laws to include coercive control will draw attention to serious cases of controlling behavior and obligate law enforcement to examine them more closely.

According to the American nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, an average of 50 women in the U.S. are shot to death each month by a current or former intimate partner. While most domestic abusers will not become mass murderers, early, consistent and effective domestic violence intervention might keep us all safer.

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