Is it fair to blame the shooter's wife?

Ex-wife of gunman details violent marriage
Ex wife of Orlando gunman speaks out sot_00004712

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Story highlights

  • Leslie Morgan Steiner: Strong link exists between domestic abuse and future acts of violence or mass killing
  • Rather than rush to judgment against Orlando shooter's widow, we should explore that connection, she says

Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Crazy Love. Her TED Talk on why victims stay in abusive situations has been viewed by over three million people. She lives in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)My first husband kept three guns -- a Glock, a Colt 45, and a snub-nosed .38 -- in our car's glove compartment, under the pillow of the bed we shared, and in his pants' pocket, respectively. He made me join the NRA and pressured me to go to his company's gun range for "target practice" almost weekly.

I thought of his guns -- and that being married to an abusive man did not make me an accessory to his violence -- this week, when I read the news that federal prosecutors are planning to present grand jury evidence against Noor Salman, the widow of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen.
    Leslie Morgan Steiner
    We do not have enough information yet to know whether she played any role in the tragic violence of June 12, but we know that Omar Mateen has been accused of domestic violence in the past. On a personal and judicial level, this rush to scapegoat a potential domestic violence victim disturbs me greatly, and it reveals our society's shallow understanding of the complex dynamics of abuse.
    Law enforcement and homeland security experts need to recognize what seems to be an increasingly clear pattern: People who abuse their loved ones have an increased risk of committing other crimes, including domestic terrorism and mass shootings.
    Don't get me wrong: all mass shootings are abhorrent and reprehensible. And while we yet don't know how much Salman knew in advance of Mateen's attack on the nightclub, anyone involved in mass shootings should be prosecuted.
    To me, mass shootings are the act of an evil and deranged mind. Now just imagine living with that person. Victims of relationship abuse know too intimately how unpredictable, and terrifying, abusers' rage against the world can be. However, and most crucially, this does not mean we can predict their actions or that we should be held responsible for them.
    Grand jury to get evidence against Omar Mateen's wife
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    Unlike Omar Mateen, my ex-husband never hurt anyone besides me during our marriage. He was not a terrorist. He worked at a division of a Fortune 500 company and was a magna cum laude Ivy League graduate. I myself have an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and an MBA from Wharton. But very much like Omar Mateen, my husband was an angry and erratic person.
    Becoming a victim of abuse has nothing to do with intelligence, or patriotism, or disrespect for our country's laws. Anyone who has the potential to fall in love has the potential to become an abuse victim.
    According to the FBI's view, currently being applied to Noor Salman, simply falling in love with the wrong person, and becoming vulnerable to his or her abusive manipulations, has become a potential crime. I shudder to think how my NRA membership and visits to a gun range might have been interpreted if my ex-husband had attacked people besides myself, and our distorted, dysfunctional marriage had come under the intense glare of public and federal scrutiny.
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    When he was angry, which was on a regular basis, my husband used to hold one of his guns to my head and threaten to pull the trigger. He told me the guns were to keep me safe from potential intruders and that I needed to know how to use them myself. But those guns were actually meant to terrify me, and to increase my distorted psychological dependence upon him. Unfortunately, for a while, it worked.
    Abusers never hit you on the first date. Gradually, over time, potential abusers work through a predictable, repetitive pattern of love and seduction, isolation, and physical and psychological abuse that is almost impossible for the intended target to spot and avoid as it is unfolding. It took me four years to leave my husband safely.
    Now, more than 20 years later, if he walked into the room where I'm writing these words, I'd start to shake uncontrollably. Yet, according to the federal government's logic, if he had gone out with his guns and shot innocent people in a nightclub or anywhere else, I might be somehow accountable for his actions.
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    The families and loved ones of abusers cannot, and should not, be held responsible for abusers' actions, even if we had some degree of knowledge of how irrational, and explosive, their anger could be. Instead of seeking to lay blame, our government and our society should listen, in advance, to abuse victims when we try to warn of a spouse or partner's threats against us or others. And they should take action. People who use weapons, legally or illegally purchased, to terrify spouses, romantic partners, or children should -- without exception -- receive increased scrutiny from law enforcement. The status quo of patchy state-by-state gun laws often doesn't prevent abusers from owning guns, clearing background checks, or buying or borrowing new ones.
    Research shows a striking connection between domestic or family violence and mass shootings. According to FBI data, in 57% of shootings of more than four people between 2008 to 2012, the shooter killed a current or former spouse or intimate partner or other family member; 16% of the time, the shooter had a prior domestic violence charge. We also need to recognize that relationship violence, with over 1.3 million victims annually, causes more harm, and more terror, than mass shootings.
    Victims of relationship abuse already have a lifetime of healing in front of us, and we often face ongoing threats from abusers even after we end relationships with them. It is of course possible that Noor Salman was a voluntary accomplice to Omar Mateen's destructive actions. But instead of scapegoating domestic violence victims like her, we need to recognize that domestic violence can predict future greater acts of violence. People with a history of abuse pose great risks to our communities. We need structures in place to heed the red flags of their escalating aggression. Hold abusers responsible for deadly actions. Not the people who love them.