PolitiFact: Statistic misused to link domestic violence, mass shooting

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017 Texas News & Politics
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, says that “perpetrators of domestic violence accounted for 54% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.”

An Austin legislator’s imperfect citation of a study led us to gauge whether domestic violence has been statistically proven to be a predictor of mass shootings.

Answer: No.

In an email blast to constituents, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, noted that the shooter at the church in Sutherland Springs had been convicted years before of beating his then-wife and young stepson. According to news accounts, Devin P. Kelley subsequently served a year in an Army brig.

Rodriguez’s email said the Texas shootings led him to suggest steps “we can take,” among them: “Strengthening existing laws and ensuring they’re implemented correctly to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”

Rodriguez said that “perpetrators of domestic violence accounted for 54% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.”

Rodriguez’s linkage made us wonder, in part because Everytown’s research drew wide mention after the Texas shootings.

A Nov. 6 New York Times news story quoted Billy Rosen, the group’s deputy legal director, saying: “We have seen over and over this pattern where in these notorious mass shootings, it is a very common thread where the person had a particular history of domestic violence. A history of this particular kind of conduct may really demonstrate that someone has dangerous propensities and should not be allowed to have guns.”

Time magazine similarly quoted the group’s Sarah Tofte saying: “You could think of domestic violence as a canary in the coal mine for future violence. We may not know everything we need to know about why and when it reverberates outside the home, but we know that it does, and we’ve seen it over and over again.”

However, the relevant April 2017 report from the Everytown group doesn’t offer data linking past domestic violence to the likelihood of anyone becoming a mass shooter. Rather, the report says that “in 54 percent of mass shootings, the shooters killed intimate partners or other family members.”

We asked Rodriguez about this contrast. In reply, he conceded in a letter that his email blast lacked clarity.

“I can understand how my language could inadvertently imply that 54% of mass shooters also had a history of domestic violence, as opposed to the analysis’ findings that 54% of the incidents were directly related to domestic violence,” Rodriguez told us.

The legislator’s claim and clarification made us wonder what data actually show about mass shooters having domestic violence backgrounds.

The Everytown report says the group drew on news stories, FBI figures and police and court records (in 76 instances) to identify 156 mass shootings in the study period — including 85 (54.5 percent) in which the perpetrator “shot a current or former intimate partner or family member.” Mass shootings can be defined in different ways. The Everytown group tallied shootings involving four or more victims, not counting the shooter.

In the report’s appendix, which summarizes each identified shooting, we spotted 13, or 8 percent, that occurred after a domestic dispute or in which the shooter had previously been charged with or linked to domestic violence.

Around the same time, though, criminologist James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor, found more domestic violence links to the shootings cataloged by the group. Fox said in a USA Today commentary published after Rodriguez sent out his email blast that of Everytown’s 85 listed shootings in which a person shot a family member, 41 percent were preceded by other acts of domestic violence. More broadly, Fox wrote, 25 percent of all the men listed as committing mass shootings showed “any indication of prior domestic violence.”

Our ruling:

Rodriguez wrote that according to an Everytown study, “perpetrators of domestic violence accounted for 54% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016.”

Rodriguez’s statement incorrectly suggests that domestic violence was a precursor to 54 percent of mass shootings. The research he cited did not confirm as much. Rather, it says 54 percent of such shootings involved a person shooting multiple family members.

Other research suggests that about 20 percent of individuals who committed such shootings from 2006 through 2016 had a history of domestic violence.

We rate Rodriguez’s claim False.

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