Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people at a gay nightclub in the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, purchased the semi-automatic assault weapon he used in the massacre legally with a background check that apparently raised no red flags. But shouldn’t his history of domestic abuse have offered a hint about his explosive anger and violent tendencies?
There’s been minimal media attention on the issue of domestic violence, but experts are drawing the connection between abuse in the home and mass shootings, linked by a crisis of hyper-masculinity and male violence.
According to Think Progress, 40 percent of mass shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2012 started with the gunman targeting his current or former female partner. When considering only mass shootings that involved four victims or more between 2009 and 2014, 57 percent of cases targeted family members or current or former intimate partners.
What’s more, 70 percent of mass shootings happen in the home, where they're unlikely to garner national attention like public gun violence.
Mateen’s ex-wife Sitora Yusifiy has told media that her ex-husband started to emotionally and physically abuse her just months into their marriage. She said that he exploded in anger and beat her often while also keeping her hostage, which led her family to “literally rescue” her from the abusive relationship and Mateen’s mental instability.
Soraya Chemaly, whose writing focuses on gender issues and sexual violence, argued in a piece in the Rolling Stone that Mateen’s history of domestic violence should have been a warning that his so-called “clean” record when it came to previous hate crimes was in fact dotted with red flags.
“Homophobia is nothing if not grounded in profound misogyny,” Chemaly wrote, noting Mateen’s history of intimate partner violence, disrespect for women and aggressive tendencies that alarmed his coworkers as “canaries in the coal mine” signaling potential for further violence. “Regardless of religion or ethnicity, anti-LGTB rhetoric is the expression of dominant heterosexuality that feeds on toxic masculinity and rigid gender stereotypes.”
It is precisely this toxic masculinity, tied at least in part in the United States to gun ownership, that fuels both domestic violence—never seen through the lens of “terror” despite daily and systematic attacks on women—and mass public gun violence, Chemaly argued in her piece titled “In Orlando, as Usual, Domestic Violence was Ignored Red Flag.”
Shannon Frattaroli, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, similarly told Vox that her research shows gender dynamics and intimate abuse must be considered in the gun violence equation. “We know that violence is the best predictor of future violence,” she said.
WATCH: More Domestic Violence with Firearms in US
Yet the media and public policy conversation around gun violence and mass shootings barely registers the issues of domestic violence. Often—especially if the shooter is a white man—the debate turns to mental health, painting the perpetrators as an unstable bad apple but not a product of a crisis of dangerous hyper-masculinity and systemic misogyny and patriarchy.
Reactionary politicians were quick to warp the Orlando massacre in anti-terrorism rhetoric. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took his proposals of banning Muslim immigrants from the U.S. to new heights, saying all immigrants from countries with a “proven history of terrorism against the United States” and its allies should be banned. Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton called for ramping up the fight against the Islamic State group in the wake of the massacre.
Although Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in his final hours in a call to police, family members report that he long expressed strong anti-LGBTQ opinions. But witness accounts of Mateen’s homosexuality, including the fact that he frequented the Pulse nightclub where he carried out the attack and also used gay dating apps, suggest his terrorizing act of hate had more to do with his own tortured sense of sexuality than radical Islamic extremism.
In a statement honoring the victims of the shooting, Black Lives Matter stressed that the Orlando massacre is a case of “homegrown terror” that is the product of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, and “a long history of colonialism.”
And while gun reform is essential, tackling this homegrown terror urgently calls for the recognition of the repeated link between domestic violence and gun violence to understand—and address through public policy and education—how a culture of strict gender norms, normalized misogyny, and toxic masculinity are fueling a crisis of male violence.