How Domestic Violence and Militarism 'Open the Floodgates' to Mass Shootings Like the Texas Massacre
The 26-year-old white man named Devin Patrick Kelley who allegedly killed 26 people Sunday as they attended church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had a history of domestic violence. He was court-martialed on charges he repeatedly hit his wife and attacked his stepson. But after he was kicked out of the Air Force with a bad conduct discharge, officials failed to report his crimes to a federal database, so Kelley had no problem buying the gun he used Sunday. We look at the link between mass shootings and domestic violence with Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, and with Mariame Kaba, an organizer and educator who works on anti-domestic violence programs.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: We begin today’s show in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where on Sunday morning an alleged shooter with a history of domestic violence fired 450 rounds at worshipers, killing 26 of them, including children, elderly people and a pregnant woman, and wounding 20 more. This is survivor Rosanne Solis describing her—describing the attack.
ROSANNE SOLIS: I could see him. I was hiding under the benches. And I could see him, his feet, walking back and forth through the aisles. I didn’t want to get shot. … I don’t know what to think anymore. This world is just so full of so much anger.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: The suspected shooter was a 26-year-old white man named Devin Patrick Kelley from New Braunfels, Texas. Investigators say he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders, one of whom was armed.
Well, on Monday, Air Force officials admitted they had failed to share information about Kelley’s criminal history with a U.S. law enforcement database that should have blocked him from buying a gun in the United States. Kelley was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico when he was convicted in 2012 by a court-martial on two charges of domestic assault, after he repeatedly hit, kicked and choked his wife and allegedly threatened her multiple times with loaded and unloaded firearms. He also pleaded guilty to hitting their 18-month-old stepson with such force that it broke the toddler’s skull. Kelley was imprisoned for a year and then thrown out of the Air Force with a bad conduct discharge in 2014. The charges should have prohibited him from buying or owning firearms, but the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations reportedly failed to enter Kelley’s domestic conviction into the national background check system used by gun sellers. Police say Kelley went on to buy at least four guns, including the Ruger AR-556 assault-style rifle he reportedly used to massacre 26 people on Sunday. This is FBIagent Christopher Combs.
CHRISTOPHER COMBS: I know there’s a lot of questions about the FBI NICSsystem and how did the person get the weapons. I can tell you that for the four purchases that he made, the NICS system did their required checks, and there was no prohibitive information in the systems that we checked that said that he could not have purchased that firearm. The three checks that are conducted, one is of NCIC, one is a criminal history check, and another one is an indices on the NICS system itself. So, in all three of those databases, there was not information that we would have said was prohibitive for that man to get the firearm.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, authorities also said Kelley appears to have carried out the massacre because of a domestic dispute he had with his mother-in-law, who was a member of the First Baptist Church but was not present on Sunday. He apparently did kill his grandmother-in-law. This is a spokesman for the Texas Department of [Public] Safety.
FREEMAN MARTIN: One thing everybody wants to know is why did this happen. It’s a senseless crime, but we can tell you that there was a domestic situation going on within this family. The suspect’s mother-in-law attended this church. We know that he had made threatening—she had received threatening texts from him. And we can’t go into details about that domestic situation, that is continuing to be vetted and thoroughly investigated. But we want to get that out there, that this was not racially motivated. It wasn’t over religious beliefs. There was a domestic situation going on within the family.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, we go to Baltimore, where we’re joined by journalist Soraya Chemaly, who covers the intersection of gender and politics, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you start off by talking about this connection? I mean, more than half the mass killings over the last, what, nine years, Soraya, are committed by people who engaged in domestic violence, that we know of, before. And then the whole issue of exactly what happened with this ex-Air Force soldier on the base, fracturing the skull of his 18-month-old stepson, repeatedly abusing, assaulting and threatening his wife, confined to the base for a year, and then there is no record of this, so he can buy guns legally?
SORAYA CHEMALY: Amy, we see this pattern over and over again, which is one in which the incidence of domestic violence is minimized or trivialized in some way. It’s not considered serious enough to merit sustained public attention or the allocation of resources so that we can really understand the dynamic better. I mean, we really do know—there’s absolutely no doubt—that the practice of violence within a home, in an intimate setting, with people that theoretically the aggressor loves, opens the floodgates to public violence. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Soraya, we’re going to interrupt, because there’s something wrong with your mic, and we’re going to get that fixed. But we want to bring in our second guest, Mariame Kaba, who is an organizer and educator who’s worked on anti-domestic violence programs, as well as anti-incarceration and racial justice programs, since the late '80s. She is the co-founder of Survived and Punished, an organization that supports survivors of violence who have been criminalized for defending themselves. She's on the board of Critical Resistance and helped found the Chicago group We Charge Genocide. She was a member of INCITE!, as well, Women of Color Against Violence.
Mariame, it’s great to have you with us, and being and living here in New York. You lived in Chicago for so many decades, though grew up here. Your response to what took place on Sunday?
MARIAME KABA: Well, I think, you know, first, sadness. And just it’s devastating that there’s been such—another loss, you know, of so many lives, that feels that it was pretty much preventable, you know, could have actually been prevented. So, just enormous amounts of sadness. But also not surprised, because we know that most people, particularly women, who are murdered in the U.S. are killed by intimate partners, and guns are usually at the root of that. Often, as Soraya was saying before, that there’s—you know, the home is a practice ground often for the violence that then becomes public violence. We really do take—you know, tend to minimize private violence and focus on the spectacular examples of public violence. But if we don’t address that private violence, then we are going to continue to see public violence in the ways that we have.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And your response to this oversight, apparently, that the military is claiming, that they failed to report this history of Kelley’s to the database, the national database?
MARIAME KABA: Well, I think that points to the fact that it is really, really difficult to track people and to track guns in this country and the purchases of guns. I’m not surprised that the military wasn’t able to, you know, continue to do what they needed to do, which was to report that he had had this conviction. It’s a huge bureaucracy. People fall—you know, things fall through the cracks all the time. So, this isn’t surprising. It’s unfortunate.
AMY GOODMAN: Soraya Chemaly, I think we’ve fixed your mic. You have covered this issue, both the issue of domestic violence and the issue of domestic violence in the military and how seriously this is taken. So if you can go through the steps and explain how it is possible that—not only the fact that he was convicted on the base, but he was confined on the base for a year, and then there’s no record, and what this means in general?
SORAYA CHEMALY: Right. I mean, I think that, clearly, within the context of his being confined, with his being convicted—he admitted that he had done this—what he did in his own family was taken seriously. But in the larger context of how domestic violence or other forms of gendered violence are treated in the military, I think there’s a clear issue.
So, even if you think about the language of how he was discharged, he was discharged for bad conduct. And “bad conduct,” honestly, it sounds as though a high school student misbehaved, right? And there are different categories of discharge based on the severity of the crime at hand or the behavior that led to the discharge. If you look at sexual violence in the military, perpetrators of sexual violence are discharged honorably far more often than victims of sexual violence. Victims of sexual violence are much more likely to be discharged involuntarily, to leave the service with a type of discharge that actually is, in some ways, more harmful when they return to civilian life than not. That’s not the case with alleged perpetrators.
And so, there is this bigger question of how we treat private violence, how we treat sexual violence, how we think about gendered violence. And so, the public-private divide that we’re working with does us a real disservice, because we tend to aggregate this private, terroristic violence in a way that seems irrelevant publicly. I mean, if you think of the fact that there are three women a day in the U.S. killed by an intimate partner, if that happened in one incident and we were talking about between 20 and 25 women a week being killed in one incident, people might sit up and pay attention. But it’s happening in this slow drip, drip, drip, that we never really—
AMY GOODMAN: Soraya?
SORAYA CHEMALY: —hear about in [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Soraya, three women a day are killed in the United States—
SORAYA CHEMALY: Three women—
AMY GOODMAN: —by their intimate partners?
SORAYA CHEMALY: Three women—three women a day are killed in the United States by intimate partners. And—
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you about the very—the culture of the military. What is it, in terms of your sense of what happens within the military, that so many folks who come out of the military end up then involved in some of these violent incidents afterwards, especially those who were involved with domestic violence while they were attached to the military?
SORAYA CHEMALY: So, I think there are several things. One is, the military is an organization of hierarchy, authoritarianism, power and control. A lot of those dynamics are implicit in intimate partner violence, right? I mean, the military regulates violence. People have a place. They have a role. They have a reporting structure. And so, the structure of the military itself is kind of a very intense microcosm of a mindset that we see over and over again within homes, within homes especially where there is violence that’s being enacted in these ways.
The second thing is, the military is filled with people who have incredibly stressful jobs, who are traumatized themselves by violence. And until we deal with what that means for those people themselves, I think we really—we can’t really focus in on why they’re acting out in these ways when they leave the service. And so, there are very high incidences of domestic violence, not only in the military, but also in our policing forces. Policing families have high rates of domestic violence. Those numbers are sort of hard to secure, actually, but, in some cases, estimates are that the rates of domestic violence among the police is two to four times the national average. And so, we can’t really separate those cultures of regulated violence from the unregulated violence that we see in the home.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And, Mariame, I’d to ask you about the—in terms of the general society, you know, we’ve heard about some attacks that are labeled as terrorist attacks. Now, this immediately is a mass killing, but we’re immediately told it’s as a result of a domestic problem. And somehow, that’s supposed to make it less terroristic to the people, to the general public and to the folks involved. Your sense of how the society treats these mass killings, especially those coming out of folks who were involved in domestic abuse?
MARIAME KABA: Sure. Well, I think part of what we have to talk about is the fact that one of the main tricks, I think, of white supremacy is that it invisiblizes both kind of structures of violence and tries to focus mostly on individual forms of violence, right? So that when we see a situation where, for the most part, the people who are doing these mass killings are mostly young white men, the story gets told that that is a form of violence that’s kind of an acceptable, normal form of violence. When people of color and others commit forms of violence, we are told and taught to see that as somehow outside of the norm of general kinds of violence, and we tend to catastrophize that. And then that also leads to certain kinds of policy responses that are intended to actually continue to oppress the groups that are very much already targeted and oppressed. So, I think that that is a big aspect of this that we have to look at, that you can’t look at these mass shootings without understanding also the ways in which violence is the glue that holds forms of oppression in place. And one of those forms of oppression is white supremacist kinds of forms of violence and oppression.
AMY GOODMAN: Shaun King tweeted, “Don’t worry everybody”—this was on Sunday—”Don’t worry everybody. It was a white man who slaughtered half of the church in Texas. That means everything is just fine. No terrorism.”
MARIAME KABA: Exactly right. And so that’s the point that I’m making. I also think that we are getting too—we get too caught up in trying to label forms of violence as terrorism. You know, we are—that is a state label that has a specific focus and an intent behind it, that leads to catastrophic consequences for the communities that are further criminalized. And so I’d like us to really just do the thing that we need to do, which is that the inability to end violence against women, gender-nonconforming people and children is at the root of these forms of gun violence and mass shootings. Let’s focus on trying to end those other forms of violence, which are themselves forms of mass violence.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And in the political climate that we have today, where clearly nothing is going to happen at the national level on this issue of guns, what do you see as the road that people concerned about this issue must take?
MARIAME KABA: Yeah, I think we’re going to have to look at—be much more creative in the way that we address issues. I tend to be skeptical of gun control, in general. I see it often as a way to criminalize communities of color further. But there are things that people are offering, like disarming domestic abusers, which would mean we have to disarm a lot of people in the military, as you just talked about, and in the police structure, as well. We should also look at personal liability. We should look at the things that could happen at the state level that might, you know, help reduce the number of people who are harmed and killed by gun violence.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, as President Trump is in Japan—he was there on Sunday—he immediately responded, as he was pushing billions of dollars of weapons—
MARIAME KABA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —to the Japanese government. He immediately responded by saying this is not the time to talk about gun control.
MARIAME KABA: Of course.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, when what happened in New York happened just a few days ago, he immediately talked about dropping the special immigration program.
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to quote filmmaker Michael Moore, who tweeted Monday, “As of yesterday, Columbine is no longer one of the 10 worst mass shootings in US history. 3 of the top 5 are all in the last year & a half.”
And so, this issue of solutions that Juan just raised, Soraya Chemaly, talk about what is and isn’t happening in Congress. I mean, I think if you ask most people, after the Las Vegas killing, where this white 64-year-old man gunned down 59 people, injured over 500, when Haddock [sic] did this—when Paddock did this, there was this discussion of making illegal bump stocks, right? This, what makes it possible for a semi-automatic weapon to shoot as an automatic weapon. I think most people in this country think they were made illegal immediately. Even the NRA said they would be OK with that, though they wanted it to be a rule, not voted by Congress, because then it could be turned around pretty quickly. But, in fact, even that didn’t happen, though they are now saying that they will look at that, given this latest massacre.
SORAYA CHEMALY: I mean, I think that there’s no doubt that we don’t have the political will in Congress to pass even the most basic forms of legislation. And I want to go back to something that Mariame said, which is the way that white supremacy works. And there’s a particular issue with gun control in terms of risk perception and risk assessment. And this is a long-studied phenomenon. In the U.S., it’s called the white male effect. And what it’s related to is the different ways in which people assess risk based on threats to their own identity. And so, when you look at the Congress and the way it approaches questions like climate change, environmental degradation, gun control, abortion, what you end up with in terms of policy is a very distorted sense of what the risks are, what the costs are, that’s directly related to our lack of inclusivity, diversity, and to the very real representation, or misrepresentation, of the population at large, because we have a Congress that is over 80 percent white and over 80 percent male.
And so, 20 years of studies show that conservative white men are outliers in terms of risk assessment, and that the ways in which the rest of us might look at problems in society just are different for them. And so, we need to really realize that the ways in which politically we’re represented matter deeply to the resolution of these problems. And in terms of gun control, it just doesn’t strike this group of people that are leading our country as as dangerous or as risky as it does for the people who are being killed and hurt and penalized on a daily basis. And I think that we need to speak directly to that as a function of who our leaders are and why it’s important to vote and why it’s important to understand that we need much, much, much more robustly diverse representation in all stages of government, so that we don’t have these kinds of outlier risk assessments that are truly debilitating to us as a society.