The Role of Domestic Violence in Mass Shootings – Winner of the 2021 Jess Kraus Award

The Jess Kraus Award is given each year to the author of the best paper published in Injury Epidemiology, selected by the editorial board. This year’s recipient of the Jess Kraus Award is Lisa Geller for her paper titled “The role of domestic violence in fatal mass shootings in the United States, 2014–2019.” In this guest blog, Editor-In-Chief Professor Guohua Li, chats with Ms. Geller about her award-winning study.

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Editor-in-Chief, Guohua Li: Lisa, Congratulations on winning the Jess Kraus Award in Injury Epidemiology. Would you please introduce yourself and the background of your study?

Lisa Geller: I am the state affairs manager at the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence (Ed Fund), a gun violence prevention organization that takes a public health and equity approach to preventing all forms of gun violence. My work focuses on research, advocacy, and implementation of evidence-based gun violence prevention policies, including extreme risk protection orders and domestic violence protective orders. I am also a mayoral appointee on the District of Columbia’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. I began working at the Ed Fund in 2016, but took a brief leave of absence in 2018 to earn an MPH in health policy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It was during my MPH program that I began my research into the role of domestic violence (DV) and gun violence and found that there was limited research on the role of DV in fatal mass shootings. With guidance from my advisor, Dr. Daniel Webster, I began to explore how often DV contributed to mass shootings in the U.S., and what, if anything, was different about DV-related mass shootings compared to those unrelated to DV.

GL: What was the additional motivating factor for examining the role of domestic violence in mass shootings?

LG: In addition to a lack of information about this connection, I was consistently troubled by how the media reported on domestic violence incidents as “private” violence – implying that there was somehow not a role for lawmakers and the general public in preventing these acts. And though mass shootings are statistically rare, they dominate media coverage of gun violence. My goal was to examine these relationships while encouraging the media and advocates to reconsider how we discuss domestic violence prevention strategies. After completing my degree, I continued this work with Dr. Cass Crifasi and Marisa Booty at Hopkins which resulted in this paper.

GL: How did you conceptualize the relationship between domestic violence and mass shooting?

LG: The relationship between domestic violence and gun violence was already well established. We know that when an abuser has access to firearms, the risk of femicide increases 400%. Abusers’ previous threats or assaults with a firearm also significantly increases the risk of homicide. We wanted to explore this connection and assess to what extent it extends to domestic violence and mass shootings. Most mass shootings are not random acts of violence, but rather perpetrated by people who have been violent in the past. Domestic violence is a significant risk factor for gun violence generally and mass shootings specifically.

GL: Would you please tell us how domestic violence and mass shootings are operationally defined in your study?

LG: If news articles mentioned that the victims were current or former intimate partners or other family members, we categorized that shooting as DV-related. Intimate partners included current or former spouses, dating partners, or someone whom the offender had a child in common or lived with. Family members were defined as someone related to the offender (either by blood, like a sister, brother, or cousin, or through the intimate partner, such as a mother-in-law) but who does not fall under the intimate partner category. We defined a mass shooting as an incident where four or more people were killed by gunfire, excluding the perpetrator.

GL: You used data from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA). What are the unique features of this data source compared to the Uniform Crime Reports and other data systems commonly used in previous studies?

LG: GVA is a unique database because it tracks gun violence incidents in real time, primarily using news articles and local and state police reports. Other common data sources can be delayed by a year or more. GVA defines a mass shooting as a single incident where four or more people are shot and/or killed (an average of 350 mass shootings per year from 2014-2019), so we applied our definition of a mass shooting to GVA’s data. GVA provides a wealth of information, including codes for different characteristics of a shooting, and also links to external sources for each shooting, setting it apart from other mass shooting data sources and allowing for richer analysis of the data.

GL: Your study shows the enduring power of descriptive epidemiology.  It is deceptively simple.  But, it is clear to me that you and your coauthors spent a great deal of time and effort on this project.  For instance, you supplemented the GVA data with additional information from news articles related to each of the mass shooting incidents studied. Coding the textual data and ensuring the reliability of the categorization are tedious yet important tasks. What did you learn from the process?

LG: As an advocate and a researcher, I’m a firm believer that the simpler you can make something, the more reach and impact it can have. That is certainly something I’ve seen since publishing this paper. It’s also core to public health that we understand the burden and nature of a problem. Taking the time to be thorough in our coding was essential to make sure we did not over or understate the role of domestic violence in mass shootings. By reviewing additional sources for each shooting, we were able to confirm and supplement the data in GVA. These efforts give us an improved understanding of the nature of the problem to support the development of better policies and programs to address the issue.

GL: What are the major findings of your study?

LG: There were two major findings of our study. The first was that in nearly 70% of mass shootings from 2014-2019, the perpetrator either had a known history of domestic violence or shot and killed at least one partner or family member. The second critical finding was that DV-related mass shootings had higher case fatality rates (CFR) – or the total number of people killed over the total number of people injured and killed – than shootings unrelated to DV. Specifically, the CFR for DV mass shootings was 83.7%, compared to 63.1% for non-DV-related mass shootings. We hypothesized a few potential reasons for the higher case fatality rates, including potential differences in the intent and motive behind a perpetrator who kills a family member or intimate partner versus a perpetrator who kills people seemingly indiscriminately.

GL: What are the implications of your study for gun violence research and prevention?

LG: I hope our paper highlights the importance of discussing and preventing mass shootings that are related to domestic violence and reframes the narrative around domestic violence so that it is not seen as private violence that cannot be prevented. Our paper shows that by only focusing on “public” mass shootings, meaning those that do not occur in the home or do not appear to be related to domestic violence, we may assume that most mass shootings occur at random. Moreover, ignoring domestic violence-related mass shootings in discussions about preventing mass shootings may lead to missed opportunities for intervention – through policies, programs, or both – to reduce the burden of these incidents.

GL: One of your coauthors is Dr. Cass Crifasi. I assume she was your mentor. The recipient of the Jess Kraus Award in 2016, Dr. Crifasi has quickly established herself as a leading scholar in gun violence research.  What was your experience of studying with her?

LG: Dr. Cass Crifasi is a true leader in the gun violence research field and has been a mentor of mine for several years. She has helped me become a better researcher and advocate, and was instrumental in strengthening our paper. I am lucky to be able to continue to learn from her and hope to coauthor many more papers with her in the years to come.

GL: Since the study was published, you have given interviews to numerous news outlets.  Could you share with your fellow public health professionals some tips for communicating science through mass media?

LG: I have the benefit in my job of being able to be both a researcher and a gun violence prevention advocate. I know that most people who sit down and read academic people are other academics, so it’s important to be able to translate research for a broader audience. I would encourage other public health professionals to promote their research through social media and press releases, since those are formats that the media in particular is often most familiar with and receptive to. In general, I find that distilling a scientific paper into a few key takeaways is an effective way to communicate to the general public. For example, Twitter threads with key findings, including using infographics or other visuals to display scientific findings, is an efficient way to reach multiple audiences.

GL: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to your seminar presentation and the award ceremony at Columbia University this fall.

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