Much of the rhetoric that filled the airwaves and social media after the horrific shooting at the Republican baseball practice suggests that somehow the escalation in political divisiveness in this country caused this episode to occur. The perpetrator, James T. Hodgkinson, was said to be a Bernie Sanders’ supporter who was avidly anti-Trump. He reportedly asked if the men on the baseball field were Democrats or Republicans. They found a supposed hit list in his pocket. He had a Facebook page filled with anti-Republican statements. Clearly, he had intense political anger targeted against Republicans. But did that lead him to shoot to kill?
There are many angry people on both sides of the political spectrum. On any given day, you can find Tweets filled with rage and Facebook posts advocating violence. But, the overwhelming majority of those people do not go beyond words. They do not kill. What was different about James Hodgkinson?
A history of violence
According to multiple media stories, some with embedded copies of police reports, we know that James Hodgkinson had a history of violence with his teenage grandniece for whom he was a legal guardian. It was reported that in April of 2006, she sought refuge at a friend’s home. Hodgkinson went to the house to take her away, eventually dragging her by the hair, slashing her seatbelt as she tried to leave in a car, and punching her female friend in the face. When the woman’s boyfriend later confronted Hodgkinson, Hodgkinson pulled out his shotgun and hit the man in the face with the wooden stock of the gun, later firing a single shot that missed. Although he was charged with two counts of battery, aggravated discharge of a firearm, criminal damage to a motor vehicle, and two counts of domestic battery, the case was dismissed because none of the three victims showed up in court.
In November 2006, the Belleville News-Democrat reported the grandniece told a judge that Hodgkinson had hit her in the face for not mowing the lawn properly. One news story reported that in previously sealed court papers obtained by the local newspaper, she described him as an abusive alcoholic who hit her repeatedly. We do not yet know if that was the extent of the violence as his widow, other family members, and friends have not yet shared their stories in any detail. We do know that the great majority of family violence episodes are hidden inside of homes and held closely by family members as shameful secrets not to be shared with anyone.
Mass shooters and violence against women
Another thing we know is that Hodgkinson’s history of violence against women is not unusual in the annals of mass shooters. According to a June 16, 2017 story in Time.com,
“Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and injured 53 others in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando last June, had an abusive relationship with his ex-wife, who said he frequently beat her, pulled her hair, and dug his fingernails into her wrists. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed 3 people and wounded 9 others when he opened fire on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in 2015, had been accused of domestic violence by two of his ex-wives and had been arrested for rape in 1992. Elliot Rodger drafted a manifesto describing how he “burned with hatred for all women who rejected me through the years” before he went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, Calif. in 2014, killing 6 people and targeting a sorority at UC Santa Barbara. Less than two hours before Cedric Ford began randomly shooting people in the Kansas lawnmower factory where he worked in 2016, he received a court order to stay away from a woman he had been living with.”
An analysis of mass shootings
An analysis of 156 mass shootings (defined as shooting in which 4 or more people are killed not including the shooter) in which 1,187 victims were shot and 848 were killed in the United States between 2009 and 2016 was conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety, a group fighting for common-sense reforms to reduce gun violence. The majority (54%) of shootings were related to domestic or family violence; 42% exhibited warning signs before the shooting. Of note, police were called to Hodgkinson’s home in March, just before he left his home to go to Washington. He had been firing dozens of rounds from a high-powered firearm out of his yard. A neighbor rushed his two young grandchildren who were playing close by after Hodgkinson didn’t stop firing. Because police found Hodgkinson had a valid firearm license, he was let off with an admonition not to fire into the wooded area again.
Calls for more civility
There are now calls for more civility in our discourse, and that is definitely a good thing. But let’s be clear, hatred of Republicans was not likely the primary reason why Hodgkinson stalked the Senators and opened fire, shooting to kill. Hodgkinson was not just an angry man; he didn’t just hate Republican politics or even Republicans. He was a violent man. He used violence against loved ones long before he became politically polarized.
By focusing on the politics of the story, we miss an important element in what may have caused this 66-year-old man to shoot to kill. Failing to acknowledge this diverts our attention from what we need to do if we are going to get closer to an understanding of the root cause of mass shootings in this country. An excellent starting point would be to always incorporate the shooter’s history of violence into reporting on mass shootings. Call it out—provide the details. A history of violence, particularly when combined with access to high-powered weapons, is a risk factor for mass shootings.
The science of violence
The scientific study of gun violence and gun violence prevention was dealt a serious blow in 1996 when Congress, goaded by the NRA, stripped the Centers for Disease Control’s Injury Center’s funding for gun violence research. They also passed a measure that forbade the CDC from advocating or promoting gun control. Even though President Obama ordered the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume the study of the causes of gun violence in 2013 after the mass murder of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the agency still has not resumed the work reportedly because of fear and lack of funding. This is a travesty.
The science of treating devastating gunshot wounds, such as the one Hodgkinson’s most severely wounded victim, Senator Scalise, sustained, has advanced remarkably in recent years. In the not too distant past, gunshot wounds to the hip and pelvis had a very high fatality rate due to bleeding and complications of multiple transfusions, amongst other devastating consequences. However, surgeons learned by careful study that staging the needed surgeries over time instead of trying to do everything in one big operation led to better outcomes. It was undoubtedly thanks to these advances that Senator Scalise survived and is now out of the Intensive Care Unit and in fair condition, although he still has a substantial recovery journey in front of him.
The science of gun violence, on the other hand, has been limping along for the last 20 years because of the politicization of the issue fueled in large part by the lobbying dollars of the NRA and fake science that purports to show that guns make us safer. It should come as no surprise that right after the tragedy that has forever changed Senator Scalise’s life, at least one Senator said he would now be carrying a gun with him at all times. I say, good luck sliding into home plate with that gun strapped around your leg.
It is way past time to acknowledge that gun violence is a deadly serious public health issue and treat it as we would any other medical issue. That means funding well designed, peer-reviewed research that can advance the science of gun violence prevention. It is time to quit being afraid of the gun lobby and 2nd Amendment folks who see every attempt to improve gun safety as a slippery slope that ends up with gun confiscation. Perhaps, these people might visit a trauma ward and chat with some gun violence victims. I am willing to bet that most of them will tell you that although they are eternally grateful to the surgeons and other healthcare professionals who saved their lives, they would have far preferred not to be shot in the first place.