Dead Women Are More Than Just Warning Signs

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The man who killed at least 26 people and injured 20 more on Sunday at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had a history of domestic violence, as is the case for many men who enter public spaces and commit this kind of lethal violence.


Devin Patrick Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 on two counts of assault against his wife and child, a military spokesperson has confirmed; he served a 12-month sentence in a military prison before receiving a “bad conduct” discharge in 2014. It seems this is what the Air Force calls it when you choke a woman and fracture a child’s skull: bad conduct.

“It’s clear that this is a person who had violent tendencies,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Monday in response to a question about how Kelley, who is now dead, was able to obtain a gun. “How that got through the cracks, I don’t have that information.”


But come Tuesday, we did have that information: the Air Force did not enter Kelley’s domestic violence conviction into the National Criminal Information Center database, so he was able to purchase an AR-556 rifle—more or less a dupe of an AR-15—from a gun store in San Antonio without incident. It is not a surprise when men like Kelley get through the cracks. Our system of regulating domestic abusers’ access to firearms is all cracks.

Still, there are other things that we know equally well, and which remain true and politically untouched no matter how many times we find ourselves in this same place: It is very easy to get a gun in the United States; and “where there are more guns, more women die.”


Most women killed in this country, 55 percent, die in an incident related to intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those women, more than 90 percent, are killed by a current or former intimate partner. Most of those deaths, 54 percent, are gun deaths.

This happens every day—nearly three times a day, actually. But we generally don’t talk about our dead women until our angry men kill other people—at churches in Texas or baseball fields in Virginia or gay night clubs in Florida or health clinics in Colorado.


When we talk about these dead women, or the women who survive domestic violence and function as a set of parallel statistics, it is often as a kind of foreshadowing to violence considered more consequential: mass shootings. The women are canaries in the coal mine, or the grotesque connective tissue that bind these shooters, overwhelmingly white men, to one another. In death, they are minor characters in some other kind of story about some other kind of violence.

When things quiet down again, we will return to a system that does not maintain comprehensive records on men barred from owning a gun, does not meaningfully enforce the laws that might take their guns away from them, and does not consider all intimate partner violence equally disqualifying. And so more women die. The daily realities of domestic violence fade into white noise until another mass shooting compels us to talk about it again, which is why I know we will be back here soon enough.


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