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Mass Shooters Often Have A History Of Violence Against Women

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back now to a major story many of us have been following in the wake of the killings at several Atlanta area massage businesses last week - the national and, many say, long overdue outcry against the violence and other abuse directed at Asian Americans. But now we want to focus on something else most of the victims had in common, that they were women. Seven of the eight victims were women - one white and six of Asian descent. And that's not just a national problem; it is a global problem.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization released the startling statistic that 1 in 3 women around the world experiences sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. That's roughly 736 million women. And the WHO says it is a problem that's devastatingly pervasive. What's more, in the U.S., increasingly, research is showing a link between those who commit violence against women and those who commit mass shootings. Bloomberg News, for example, analyzed 749 mass shootings between 2014 and 2019 and found that, quote, "about 60% were either domestic violence attacks or committed by men with histories of domestic violence," unquote.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Deborah Epstein, who spent decades researching and working on issues related to violence against women. She's director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown Law, where she's also a professor. Professor Epstein, thank you so much for joining us.

DEBORAH EPSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I just wanted to start by getting your reaction to the devastating shooting in Atlanta last week. As we mentioned, eight people were killed, but seven were women, and six of those were of Asian descent. So what did that bring up for you?

EPSTEIN: Yeah, the way this incident unfolded gives us real insight into how differently we perceive hate and violence based on race versus hate and violence based on gender. We have this 21-year-old white male shooter who murdered seven women, six of whom were Asian. And when he was arrested, he made two statements, and they're both important. First, he denied that racial hatred played a motivating role. And this immediately led the Atlanta Sheriff's Department to state that they could not yet conclude it was a hate crime, right?

Soon afterwards, evidence came to light about anti-Asian postings on the sheriff's spokesperson's Facebook page, and the media very appropriately began to cover this incident, as you said, as a race-based hate crime. And that's a critically important lens through which to understand this horrific incident. It is a race-based hate crime.

But here's the thing. The second thing that the shooter said from the outset was that he was a sex addict and that he killed these women out of a deep sense of frustration and an attempt to reduce the temptation that he experienced. That's a clear admission of a gender-based hate crime.

The conversation is locked into the racial aspect of the crime to the exclusion of gender rather than being about both. There is, unfortunately, plenty of room for multiple forms of hate and hate-inspired violence. This man targeted his victims because they were Asian, and he targeted his victims because they were women. And we have to shed the blinders that limit us to seeing the race piece, but not the gender piece of hate.

MARTIN: So it's interesting. You know, is it that what he told authorities, that somehow these women were responsible for his problem, whatever the problem was, or that controlling them was the key to saving himself - do you know what I mean? Like, what does that mean when you hear that? Like, how do you understand what that says?

EPSTEIN: Yeah. That takes us right back to the nexus between domestic violence and mass shootings, right? It makes sense when you consider what motivates most perpetrators of domestic violence who are using violence in their home as a strategy to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and to control the women in their lives, right? Mass shooters like this one in Atlanta are doing the same thing on a much larger scale. They are subjecting a large group of people they've targeted to this same sense of terror that the motivation is parallel. It's this need to dominate, intimidate and control other people. And he essentially admitted that that was his motive.

MARTIN: Activists have used the term femicide in recent years to describe this phenomenon of people being murdered - women being murdered because they are women. In some countries, it's considered a crime. I don't think this is a very commonly used term in the United States. And I wonder why you think that might be, and what - is that framing useful?

EPSTEIN: Absolutely. It's crucial. The language we use to describe social phenomena is important. And you're right. In other countries, when a woman is murdered on the basis of her sex, they call it femicide. In the U.S., that term seems like it's just too political for us to stomach. And so we use the generic term of murder. And I think this failure to name violence against women as women contributes to our failure to recognize it and to understand it. And I think if we started to use the language that more clearly describes the problem of gender-based violence, we might be able to gain greater insight into it and advance our efforts to end it.

MARTIN: Professor Epstein, before we let you go, I understand that you feel that some of the sort of social shifts that are necessary go beyond legislation. But there is renewed interest in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. And I'd like to ask if you think that would be helpful, and if so, why?

EPSTEIN: It's absolutely helpful for two reasons. One is that the Violence Against Women Act is the primary source of funding for so many programs that support victims and survivors of domestic violence across the United States. It's the primary - a major source of funding for shelters and for free legal services.

The second thing that's really important about the Violence Against Women Act is that in its initial incarnation, it included a civil rights remedy that would help the federal government intervene when gender-based violence is a hate crime that isn't really being recognized at the state level or enforced at the state level. I very much hope that now there will be a renewed effort to draft that piece of legislation in a way that can survive constitutional scrutiny because the rates of domestic violence since the Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994 have not decreased the way that you would think in a 25-year period. It is still very much a serious social problem. And we need to not only continue to fund services, but find new and creative ways to intervene and end it.

MARTIN: That was Deborah Epstein, professor of law at Georgetown University, where she also directs the Domestic Violence Clinic. Professor Epstein, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

EPSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.