'Private' Domestic Violence Is Now Everyone's Business
Mass shooter normalization demonstrates domestic abusers are no longer just a threat to their families
Warning: Brief mentions of animal and child abuse.
Canada's worst mass shooter, the late Gabriel Wortman, returned to the news as police release information about his extremely violent genealogical history. Wortman's father Paul was highly abusive as was George, Paul's father.
In April 2020 denturist gone bad Gabe killed 18 people and probably himself in Portapique, Nova Scotia. A new report based on police interviews of his surviving wife, family members, friends and acquaintances details family violence going back at least four generations. Not only was young Gabe subjected to horrific violence, he was forced to commit it himself. His father Paul made Gabe shoot his own dog when he felt he wasn't taking care of him well enough.
Paul and his brothers (Gabe's uncles) were subjected to so much of George's violent abuse that they each considered killing him. One uncle thought about it after being gifted a rifle when he was 12, but didn't have the courage. Another stabbed George as a child during a family fight. As an adult, Paul once smashed his father's head into the concrete after George denied any of the vicious abuse he'd committed when the boys were growing up.
Daddy Paul is still alive and admits to nothing more re Gabe and his brothers than 'having a hell of a temper' and 'screaming'.
In a 12-hour ordeal of terror for the small Portapique community, on April 18-19, 2020, domestic violence perp Gabe went on a rampage, setting multiple fires, killing 22 people, and injuring three. He set a new record for Canadian mass killing previously held by 1989 Montreal misogynist Marc Lepine, who killed 14 female engineering students, screaming how feminists had ruined everything, blaming them for his failure to get into engineering school that year.
Guys who hit girls
With the United States as the decades-long case study in mass shootings, a common thread that's emerged is shooters' personal histories of domestic violence. A recent peer-reviewed research study in Injury Epidemiology analyzed five years of Gun Violence Archive data, finding that two-thirds of mass shooters (defined as four or more fatalities, not including the gunman) killed family members, intimate partners or had a history of domestic violence.
It's why President Joe Biden's new gun law, passed last month, closes the 'boyfriend loophole', meaning dating partners convicted of domestic abuse can no longer buy guns.
How effective this new law will be remains to be seen in a nation awash with guns. It's like fighting cockroaches by no longer allowing them to eat garbage. The closed loophole only applies to dating partners who have been convicted of prior abuse.
And how many abuse victims are willing to report it, let alone push it into court? Good luck with that.
Canada doesn't have the gun violence problem America does, but it's growing, since like every other country on the planet, we've got an unhealthy share of toxic masculine men who can't be trusted with plastic picnic knives, much less shooty things.
The profile of the violent mass shooter is 'male', big surprise there since the historical, universal profile of the violent anything starts with 'male', and now, to put a finer point on mass shootings which in the U.S. are no longer a 'rare occurrence', we can now add 'domestic abuser'.
This means that a woman's private hell is no longer her own business. The rise of the mass shooter and his clear connection to domestic violence demonstrate that the next Gabriel Wortman will likely have a history of intimate partner abuse, and many will be quietly aware of it.
Not all shooters fit that profile. Younger mass killers like teen Uvalde shooter Salvatore Ramos, the aforementioned Marc Lepine, 'killer incel' Elliott Rodgers, and Seung-Hui Cho, the University of Virginia's first mass shooter (there was a second a few years later), were unmarried, social reject loners who'd never had girlfriends. But a fair chunk of them, too, had a history of violence, if not necessarily against women.
What do mass shootings mean for the tough guy's social circle?
Protecting one's own family and colleagues may mean having to take a highly uncomfortable, more proactive awareness in handling a highly volatile neighbor, co-worker, or friend's spouse, especially if one suspects or knows there are guns in the house.
Sometimes angry men go after the wife and kids, sometimes everyone but the wife, so she can live without her nearest and dearest as 'punishment' for whatever transgressions against him he thinks she's committed.
Becoming a mass shooting victim increases for one who knows the shooter, especially if close to his partner. One might make the list of people he's out to 'get', especially if he thinks she cares about them or that they helped her.
The work colleagues of an abused partner may be at risk as well.
With multiple mass shootings a literal daily reality for Americans, far more people will discover the ugly emotional legacy once the domain of comparatively few: The guilt of realizing you might have been able to stop a massacre.
How might you feel if someone you knew or suspected to be violent, some man you never liked, maybe you didn't even know him that well, committed a mass killing in a church, supermarket, parade, rock concert, school, or public park?
Maybe he had a reputation in his neighborhood. Maybe you didn't know his partner, or didn't know her well, but you suspected something weird going on at home. Maybe she always wore sunglasses, even inside. Maybe she explained away her bruises as 'klutziness', but not with that funny ha-ha attitude genuinely clumsy people express. Maybe people half-joked, "He's going to be the next mass shooter!"
They won't be laughing if it happens. Especially if they know or love any of the victims.
Domestic violence is no longer a private matter. It's now everyone's business.
The role of the abused partner
It won't do much good to talk to her. She'll likely be afraid of what he'll do if he finds out. He may have isolated her enough that she'll reject any offers of help. It may put her safety in danger if he even sees her talking to someone.
But taking the 'It's none of my business' attitude when we hear something going on could be more deadly than just for her.
I became more vigilant at the start of the pandemic, realizing that so much togetherness would create increased family friction, especially if there was pre-existing dysfunction. One morning I heard a man's raised, angry voice in the apartment next door and I went on full alert. The moment I heard anything sounding like violence I was ready to call 911. I don't know the family, but I've seen them.
He screamed at the kids a little but made no threats and I heard no violence, so I let it be.
I have called the police on a prior neighbor, putting myself a bit at risk. However, I'm much older than she and we live in Canada where guns aren't nearly as easy to acquire as they are in the States.
If I was still living there, I'd be far more worried about any guy I knew to have an anger management problem. What would it be like in the States, when there are more potentially dangerous nutbags who might turn the gun on me, a stranger or near-stranger?
What can we do?
One of the worst moral dilemmas is deciding whether to report someone you suspect might be a potential mass killer, but hasn't created enough suspicion yet. I've had to grapple with it in the past year. I'll write about it shortly.
One thing to do is call the police if you hear something going down. Couples fight, and I only call when I hear what sounds like violence or threats. I don't file spurious complaints, but I've often thought about what a formerly-abused friend said: "Call the police. You don't know how many times J had me backed against a wall and I was praying to God someone was calling the police."
It will at least start a police record on the guy, and serve him notice that others are paying attention, especially if it happens multiple times. Then there's a record detailing a history for this guy. But don't call the police without real reason.
Arguably, it could put the partner's life in danger, but consider also any children in the home. It's not just her life at stake; he might harm the kids too.
We might be afraid the abuser will find out or figure out who did it. The list of suspects is small in a neighborhood, or a hallway.
What if you know there are guns in his domicile?
What if he decides to shoot everyone he sees one day? And one of those people is you, your spouse, or your kids?
An article about the red flags for a potential shooter, and what to do, notes that the police aren't always the first go-to. Sometimes a counselor, mental health advocate, community leader, school administrator, or family member is the best place to start.
I called my property manager several years ago when I shared an elevator with a deliveryman carting a rifle storage locker. I noted the floor number he punched. It's not an illegal item here, but whoever ordered it pretty arguably had guns, and the paranoid American in me wanted the property manager to know just in case something went down. The person who ordered it may have been a perfectly level-headed gun owner. No reason to call the police. Just let someone know. In case.
The red flags aren't race, religion, political party or even one's views and opinions. One can be racist, sexist, homophobic or a member of that political party you can't stand and not be a potential mass shooter. They cross the line when they start talking about it, hinting about it, posting disquieting photos and expressions on social media, or even making a direct threat about 'those who have it coming'. He might have owned guns for years but now he seems to be buying a lot of them, along with ammo and protective gear.
You start with the police if you think it's an urgent enough threat, and with others if there's not. When they're expressing empathy with mass shooters, that may be an early warning sign but not for police involvement.
Last year I filed a report on an acquaintance I'd defriended and blocked on Facebook over a political dispute. She took it much harder than I'd have guessed, and she made harassing, threatening calls. She disguised her voice but I knew who it was. I struggled with calling the police over this stupid little cat fight. I didn't think she was dangerous, and doubted she had guns. But, I didn't want to worry my friends about this, and if something did happen to me, the police would focus on my close male friends. No one would even know who Jamie is since I barely knew her and never talked about her.
I created a record in the extremely unlikely case she pulled anything. I gave the police Jamie's name, phone number, email address and Facebook page address and made it clear I didn't want them to intervene right now, just know she's their primary suspect if I disappear or turn up in a gully somewhere.
We're only now coming to realize that domestic violence is a public health issue, especially in a country drowning in guns like the United States. I think about it even here in Canada, where mass shootings have historically been rare, but they're growing, especially in the pandemic. The other day I Googled 'the most recent mass shootings', thinking of America and found---the most recent one was in Langley, BC.
It's time to open discussion about how we can better protect our communities from mass shooters, knowing what we do about their violent histories, whether they abused their partners and families, or whether they were disturbed young people who never should have been allowed to purchase guns. We must also address how to do this without putting the man's immediate family in danger.
Let's serve notice to abusers and the next wannabe CNN superstars everywhere: We're watching you, and we're reporting you.
This will also serve notice to women in abusive situations who may be unwilling for whatever reason to handle it: Don't tell us to stay out of your business. This isn't just your business anymore. It's a public health crisis. It's everyone's business.
When I'm trying not to overreact to erratic-seeming Canadians I help women and others reclaim their power at my website, Grow Some Labia.