NEW YORK — As Americans struggle to find reasons for the recent spate of mass killings - from the easy availability of guns to media violence to lax parenting - another issue is surfacing that could shed light on the problem and may help prevent it: domestic violence.
The shooters involved in several of the recent multiple killings were known or believed to have committed acts of violence at home before they vented their rage on others.
While domestic violence alone isn't a predictor of who might commit mass murder, a number of experts are now saying it could help explain some of the impulses behind the rage - and certainly act as an early warning sign.
"It really jumps out at you if you, particularly if you look at the recent tragedies in Atlanta," says Dr. Arthur Kellermann, the head of emergency medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.
Day trader Mark Barton is believed to have killed his first wife and her mother years before turning his deadly rage on his estranged wife and two children, then moving on to kill nine people at two brokerage houses in July in an Atlanta suburb.
Domestic violence was also evident in the most recent shooting in Fort Worth, Texas. Larry Gene Ashbrook's neighbors report seeing him hit his father so hard one day he knocked him to the ground. Ashbrook, a loner, killed seven people when he went on his shooting spree at a church.
"There's a huge correlation between the levels of violence that we tolerate as a society within a family, and how it spills out to the rest of the community," says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver.
Many experts say they're surprised that the link to domestic violence has not been brought up and examined more thoroughly, particularly with the intense political and social debate sparked by the recent violence. They blame, in part, societal perceptions.
Lack of attention
While huge strides have been made in the past 25 years in dealing with domestic violence - from increasing legal and police protections for victims to the availability of shelters - many experts say family violence still doesn't get the attention it deserves.
"The norm is that intimate partner violence is a private matter that happens as a matter of course," says Dr. Lynn Short, a senior researcher at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. "Society's acceptance of that kind of violence, in general, is still pretty high. Twenty-five years ago, there were virtually no services for battered women and the issue continued to be a dirty little secret."
Since then, more than 1,500 shelters, thousands of hot lines, and an array educational, prevention, and police services have been put into place. But even with all of this, conservative studies estimate that more than 1.5 million women are abused annually. Other studies put the number as high as 4 million.
The reports of domestic violence have also continued to increase over the years. In part, that's due to better reporting because of increased awareness. But some experts also say it's because the most common form of domestic abuse - male violence - is still not being adequately addressed. The recent shootings, they say, only highlight the problem.
A study of FBI homicide statistics released last spring seems to back up that contention. The researchers found that over the past 25 years, the overall number of "intimate partner" homicides - considered the most reliable current gauge of domestic violence - had dropped 30 percent. But what was surprising to researchers was the way that 30 percent broke down along gender lines.
In 1976, about 1,600 women and 1,400 men were killed by intimate partners. In 1996, the number of female victims dropped to 1,300. But the number of male victims plunged by 70 percent, to 400 victims.
"In a very interesting way, the shelters and other services have really saved men's lives," says Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA, a center that shelters victims in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Ms. Osmundson, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, says 25 years ago women in battering situations felt as if they had no choice - they could either continue to be beaten or fight back. And the choice to fight back was often a life or death decision.
"I knew [my former husband] was so much bigger than me and physically stronger that if I had ever really fought back with any serious intent, he could have killed me easily, so I would have had to win," she says.
Roots of female violence
Studies consistently show that more than two-thirds of women who kill their intimate partners do so in self-defense or in an act of delayed revenge after years of abuse. Researchers tie the decline in the numbers of women who kill their intimate partners to the fact that they now have more options to leave.
That's in part because of the services that have been made available, such as shelters, but also because of women's increased economic independence and lower marriage rates.
But the fact that the number of women being killed by their partners has declined so little by comparison to men deeply disturbs Dr. Kellermann.
"If you look at the magnitude of the problem - not just in terms of the number of assaults and homicides, but also that so many kids grow up in these environments witnessing the violence or being victims themselves - you realize this is driving a lot of crime and violence we have in this country," he says. "It is clearly a public safety and public health issue for all of us, whether or not our own families are caught up in that web."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society