It’s Time to Call San Bernardino’s Deadly School Shooting What It Really Was: Domestic Violence

By Lilly Dancyger (4/11/2017)

Most news outlets are calling it a school shooting. A few have used the phrase “murder-suicide.” But it’s time to call yesterday’s deadly shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school what it really was: domestic violence.

Karen Elaine Smith, a 53-year-old teacher of special needs children at North Park Elementary School, was planning to divorce her husband of seven months. Instead of signing the papers, Cedric Anderson, 53, walked into his wife’s classroom and, without saying a word, opened fire. His shots killed his wife, as well as an eight-year-old student who was standing behind her, before he turned the gun on himself.

“She thought she had a wonderful husband, but she found out he was not wonderful at all,” Smith’s mother, Irma Sykes, told the Los Angeles Times. “He had other motives. She left him and that’s where the trouble began.”

Anderson had previous domestic abuse allegations against him, and though Smith hadn’t filed any charges, her mother says that his abusive behavior was the reason her daughter was preparing to divorce him and the reason the two had been separated for the past month.

Smith was doing what every unhelpful spectator who doesn’t understand domestic violence suggests women do when they’re being abused: She was leaving. And Anderson’s reaction perfectly, horrifyingly illustrates why women are so often afraid to leave abusive relationships—it’s never so simple as just walking away and being done with it. In our societal impatience, we so often refuse to see the complexity of the impossible situation these women are in, and suggest the obvious solution—to leave—as if it never occurred to the victims to try, as if there’s nothing stopping them from doing so (whether it’s fear of losing custody of their children, the fact that abusive partners tend to control a couple’s finances and many victims don’t have the means to leave without ending up destitute, or, as in this case, the threat of escalating violence).

“The first week after a woman makes the courageous decision to leave an abusive relationship is often the most dangerous week of her life,” said Bryan Pacheco of Safe Horizon, an organization that supports victims of domestic violence. “The abuser will do anything to make her stay—that means the violence may escalate.”

Pacheco called what happened at San Bernardino, “the ultimate form of trying to make someone stay or take their decision away,” and added: “We always tell people that we don’t think domestic violence is going to stop until we stop asking ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ and start asking ‘Why do abusers abuse?’”

This country continues to fixate on the threat of religiously motivated terrorism, but the truth is, domestic abusers are a much bigger threat. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and 94% of the victims are women.

A history of domestic violence or hatred of women is a better indicator of a future mass shooter than religious extremism. Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, reportedly beat his wife. Before Elliot Rodger shot and killed six people and then himself in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014, he left a video in which he expressed his anger at women who had rejected him, saying, “I will punish you all for it.” Cedric Larry Ford, who killed three people and injured 14 others in a Kansas shooting spree last year, opened fire just 90 minutes after receiving a restraining order from his girlfriend. The list goes on. In fact, Everytown for Gun Safety found that 57% of the mass shootings that took place in the United States between 2009 and 2015 included victims who were a family member, spouse, or former spouse of the shooter.

Efforts to stem the United States’ epidemic of gun violence by restricting access has been thwarted time and again by the gun lobby, the NRA, and politicians—just this year, Republicans in Congress voted to make it easier for mentally impaired people to buy guns. While the debate over gun access continues to rage, perhaps we should be looking at this rash of mass shootings from a different angle: recognize the seriousness of domestic violence—and the implications not just for the perpetrator’s spouse, but for his potential to escalate.

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