Misogyny and Mass Shootings

May 26, 2021

Dear Readers,

This morning, according to early reports, another American mass shooting ended the lives of eight victims—union workers at the San Jose, CA rail yard of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority—and the perpetrator, one of their colleagues. Many early reports, citing law enforcement sources, said the perpetrator set fire to his own house before the shooting. One local news article said the suspect’s girlfriend had accused him of horrific incidents of domestic violence in a declaration filed in court. It’s not yet known what type of gun or guns he used to end eight lives including his own.

Since the Columbine massacre inaugurated a grisly new era in American life, adapting to our new reality has meant becoming literate in the strange epistemics of mass shooting coverage. We know that early reports are often unreliable, especially in the first 24 hours, that the confusion of the early aftermath can be an inviting target for baseless opportunism, that mistaken impressions can linger, and that perpetrators’ motives are often elusive to investigators. We’ve also learned to expect that pro-gun groups will go dark in the first days following a tragic shooting, then decry the supposed politicization of the event, and ultimately—after the crush of attention has receded somewhat—oppose any efforts to address the proliferation of mass shootings with new legislation while pushing their own new laws that seem likely to make the problem even worse.

It’s a tricky environment in which to try to make any kind of constructive point. The difficulty in navigating the foggy factual situation, the entrenched partisanship, and the tragic reality of another American community deeply in pain contribute to a pervasive sense of hopelessness among reformers. Moreover, the regularity of these tragedies affords copious precedents in which a shooting just as awful or worse than the present one failed to prompt any change.

At the same time, we know from the example of the rest of the world that we don’t have to endure this much pain. Gun control works; developed countries that practice it do not suffer as much from mass shootings as America does. One successful reform might breed another, and many American lives would almost certainly be saved.

In the spirit of that constant struggle, it’s worth reiterating a common feature of mass shootings that emerges from the messy facts, the partisan bickering, the permeating grief and replaces the shakiness of anecdote with the solidity of data: Misogyny predicts mass murder.

In the majority of mass shootings, domestic violence precedes the mass casualty incident. A Bloomberg review found that the association is stronger as the number of victims increases.

Broaden the lens from domestic violence to abuse of women and misogyny generally, and the correlation is even stronger. The pattern held true at Parkland, Planned Parenthood, and Pulse. It was the case at Virginia Tech in 2007, at UCSB in 2014, in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs in 2017, in Colorado Springs two weeks ago, and in San Jose today (reportedly).

As the superabundance of links in the preceding sentences may suggest, this is no new insight. It is a widely covered phenomenon, widely acknowledged in academic journals and newspapers and among Democratic elected officials. It animates, in part, a provision of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that progressives have been trying to get passed through the Senate for years.

Despite its ubiquity, the overwhelming evidence that our mass shooting problem is a misogyny problem seems to fade from view as quickly as submerged cotton candy, though the conclusions are as solid as rock. Today is another painful reminder, and we shouldn’t let it slip away.