“The latest US school shooter allegedly abused his ex. Are we surprised?”

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Moya Crockett
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The link between domestic abuse and mass violence is well-established, says Stylist’s Digital Women’s Editor Moya Crockett. It’s time we started treating it as a warning sign. 

Shortly before 3pm on Valentine’s Day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked onto the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle. At least 17 people are known to have died, making the attack the deadliest school shooting since 2012, when 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. It is at least the 18th school shooting to take place in the US in 2018.

In the hours since the attack unfolded, we have observed the playing-out of a familiar scene. American politicians are either calling for gun reform or offering their “prayers and condolences”, depending on which side of the political spectrum they operate. In countries where guns are illegal, we shake our heads and wonder how the most powerful nation in the world could allow its children to be gunned down with such frightening regularity. And law enforcement has begun frantically digging into Cruz’s past, to see what clues – if any – there were as to his intentions.

As it turns out, there was rather a lot of evidence that Cruz was, if not a future school shooter, then at the very least a deeply troubled and potentially dangerous man. (He is currently being held in custody in Florida, and has been charged with 17 counts of premediated murder.) His social media accounts were peppered with menacing photos of him posing with shotguns, pistols and knives, and rage-filled comments about guns and violence. He had previously been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for disciplinary reasons; teenagers who knew him have described him as a “loner” who “talked about guns a lot”. One former classmate told CBS Miami that students had frequently joked that if anyone was going to “shoot up the school”, it would be him.

And, almost inevitably, Cruz is believed to have abused women. Former classmates have told reporters that he was abusive towards his ex-girlfriend, and was expelled after getting into a fight with her new boyfriend. Another young man said that he had cut off a friendship with Cruz after “he started going after one of my friends, threatening her”.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because there is a long-established link between acts of mass violence and aggression towards women. In more than half (54%) of mass shootings in the US, almost all of which are perpetrated by men, an intimate partner or relative is among the victims. And dig into the pasts of many of the men who have carried out mass shootings in the States in recent years, and you will find histories of violence and hostility towards women, again and again and again. 

A woman stands outside the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel in Florida, where police set up an area for parents to meet their children after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Last year alone, gunmen Kevin Neal, Devin P Kelley and James Hodgkinson carried out shootings in Northern California, Texas and Virginia. Between them, these unconnected men killed 31 people and injured at least 35; all three had records of physically abusing their partners. (Neal’s wife was among those he murdered.) Robert Lewis Dear, the man who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015, had a long history of violence against women. In 2014, Elliot Rodger shot dead seven people (including himself) in Southern California, leaving behind a video in which he vented his rage at women who had rejected him.

This pattern is borne out not just in mass shootings in the US, but also in acts of religious terrorism around the world. Rachid Redouane, one of the London Bridge terrorists, had a record of domestic violence, as did the Westminster attacker Khalid Masood and Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who murdered 86 people in Nice in August 2016. These men claimed a radical form of Islam as the motive for their actions, but that was not – of course – the only cause of their violence. Toxic masculinity has no inherent religion: Nikolas Cruz reportedly hated Muslims and was a fan of Donald Trump.

Not all abusers go on to commit acts of mass violence, but we cannot afford to keep ignoring one of the clearest threads running through so many of these cases. As Helen Lewis noted in the New Statesman after the London Bridge attacks, a failure to take domestic violence seriously will inevitably mean that red flags are missed. And yet we don’t take domestic violence seriously enough. In the UK, women’s refuge budgets have been slashed by nearly 25% since 2010 and 39% of refuges will have to close under new proposed funding changes, despite the fact that at least 1.2 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2017.

In the US, domestic abusers and stalkers are allowed to buy and use guns in 35 states under state law, despite federal law saying otherwise. Even that federal legislation only applies to abusers who have victimised their spouses, not those who have beaten or stalked dating partners. 

Clockwise from top left: Nikolas Cruz, Devin P Kelley, Rachid Redouane and James Hodgkinson, all of whom committed mass killings and were accused of domestic violence. 

The list of factors that might motivate and enable someone to commit an act of horrific mass violence is long and complex. It can encompass everything from inadequate mental health services to religious fanaticism, racism, social isolation and access to lethal weaponry. The specifics of Nikolas Cruz’s case are still emerging, but he appears to have been struggling, at the very least, with mental health issues.

However, it is clear that one common factor in these attacks is a specific kind of male rage and desire for dominance over others. It is also clear that this impulse often finds an outlet in abusing women in the home, before it explodes out into the wider world.

So yes, the US needs gun control. But we also need to recognise that domestic abuse can be a potential gateway to behaviour with even more devastating and far-reaching consequences. We need to foster a culture where women feel able to speak out about male violence, knowing that they will be able to access proper support when they do so. We need the police to be given the resources and training to make tackling domestic abuse a priority, and for them to start keeping tabs – real tabs – on known perpetrators.

Most importantly, we need to stop tolerating male aggression as a fact of life, and start treating it as a toxic, destructive problem that requires intervention. The evidence is there. Ignoring it is no longer an option.   

Images: Rex Features