Stopping the Train – how the Texas killings might have been prevented

Margaret MacPherson headshot

Margaret MacPherson

Margaret is a Research Associate with CREVAWC at Western University. She has been a champion for the Neighbours, Friends and Families program since 2005.

The media has noted that the Sunday killing spree happened in the context of a “domestic situation” that possibly culminated as revenge. “A domestic situation?!” Words matter. Is there a more effective way to minimize and deny the brutal reality of domestic violence? This was not a private dispute between people unable to manage their conflict. This was an ongoing experience of control and subjugation and violence.

What it must have been like for his family is a parallel story that is not being examined. They were trapped and terrorized inside walls of their home as his rage and violence escalated over many months. He beat his dog. He was court martialed for assaulting his first wife and breaking his stepson’s skull in 2012. The day after the murders, one reporter noted that that they had no idea whether his wife is even alive or dead. It was a sidebar in the story, presented almost as barely worth mentioning. 

Woman raising arms to protect herself

Domestic violence experts can identify risk factors that indicate when a perpetrator’s behaviour is more likely to end in a lethal incident. Even with the limited information we have from media accounts, we know that some of these risk factors were present, there was a history of domestic violence, the level of violence was increasing, he had committed violence against a family pet, there was a recent separation. Certainly a professional risk assessment would have uncovered more risk factors. Suggesting that the massacre happened as a result of “mental health problem” is simplistic and dangerous. Mental health is not a root cause of lethal violence and many people with mental health problems are not violent. Mental health problems are another risk factor for lethal violence when domestic violence is ongoing.

Had there been a response when the first incident of domestic violence occurred, it is conceivable that with support and accountability, he might have been able to deal with the issues that were driving him. Research, primarily from Domestic Violence Death Review Committees shows that deaths can be prevented. Other research has shown that most men who are violent in their relationships can change their behaviour. In this case if change wasn’t possible, his level of risk could have been monitored and managed. Either way, in this case, as in too many others, we missed opportunities to prevent lethal violence.  We continue to respond to violent men strictly with punishment and to socially isolate them as pariahs – which increases their risk of violence.

Gun hidden in drawer

The links between domestic violence and the mass shooting have already been made in this case. But we need to be careful to avoid victim blaming in making the links. Much has been made of text threats he sent to his mother-in-law that morning. She didn’t go to church on Sunday. She wasn’t there to experience his violence spilling out onto the congregation. Will her absence be held against her?  Will his family be quietly blamed for not containing him, for ‘allowing’ him to erupt in full public view? This problematic framing of the tragedy would see the domestic violence as an individual problem rather than the societal problem that it is. There is a collective responsibility to identify and respond to warning signs and risk factors if we are to keep family members and as this case shows, members of the public safe.

In a recent study, one in three Canadian women report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime.[1] The World Health Organization calls men’s violence against women a global epidemic. What happened in Texas should catapult domestic violence onto every news feed and headline. The warning signs and risk factors were there. They clearly pointed to the possibility that the shooter could engage in lethal violence. What happened was preventable.

The trajectory of domestic homicide is like a train running out of control. Without intervention of some kind, it only picks up speed until the inevitable crash. Not all domestic violence ends in homicide, but all domestic violence does incredible damage that goes far beyond the individuals involved. It is not a private family matter. It is a whole society issue.

[1] Can Work be Safe When Home Isn’t? 2014.