This week, a co-worker of mine sent me a fairly upsetting article about the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. While you may be thinking that the upsetting part of the article must have been details of the gruesome mass atrocity itself, it was actually something more subtle. It was the fact that after all these years, people still have dangerously little knowledge of the very real, very serious threat posed by domestic violence.
So how does this lack of knowledge about domestic violence relate to the Virginia Tech shootings? During a wrongful death suit brought by the families of students gunned down by Seung-Hui Cho, law enforcement testified that they believed the initial incident where two students were killed in their dorm room was domestic in nature and therefore, targeted and contained. Defense witnesses explained that because they determined the dorm shooting a domestic incident, there was no reason to believe that a deranged gunman would subsequently unleash mass violence on innocent bystanders.
Of course, their assessment was incredibly costly as Cho went into a classroom just hours later, shooting and killing 30 students and ultimately himself. Not only was this assessment factually incorrect as no connection between Cho and the initial victims was ever made, it was also fundamentally false in their assumption that a “domestic incident” is always isolated, targeted and somehow a non-threat to the rest of society.
So here’s the problem with the “it was just domestic violence” mentality: batterers can be incredibly lethal and a very real threat to the entire community. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to perceive intimate partner abuse as isolated and abusers as individuals with “anger issues” as opposed to individuals who create a complex cycle of violence using power and control. But of all the criminals to minimize the potential danger they could pose to society, batterers who would kill their partners or family members should not be considered a low-risk group. To the contrary, their manipulative, often calculated, and frequently lethal behavior should be considered among the most dangerous of criminals to the victims they target as well as the community they inhabit.
When I was Chair of the Nashville Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we hosted a training where nationally renowned speaker Mark Wynn presented on the lethality of batterers to a room of detectives, attorneys and service providers. The room got very quiet when he showed a video of a batterer who opened fire at a court house after a domestic violence hearing, shooting at his wife, police officers, and anyone that was around. We all worked at the court house on domestic violence cases and the individuals this man had gunned down could have been any one of us. This was an important reminder of the danger that an abuser poses not only to the victims and witnesses we worked with, but also to each of us.
So, as I read the article on the Virginia Tech case, I couldn’t help thinking how frustrating it is that we as a society still struggle to acknowledge the dangerous and serious nature of domestic violence. Even to the extent that a gunman on a college campus can be downplayed because it is probably “just a domestic incident.”
Then, I saw the great contradiction – below the Virginia Tech article was a news reel of additional breaking stories and wouldn’t you know, there was an article on a shooting at a court house. The gunman, who was on trial for sexual assault in which both his ex-wife and daughter were testifying against him, opened fire killing one bystander, wounding several others and even taking hostages (neither of which were his ex-wife or daughter).
While we have made great strides in domestic violence awareness and education, this glaring inconsistency with the news story above where a conclusion was made that a domestic shooting poses no greater threat of mass violence to the larger community, was yet another reminder for me of how far we still have to go.