Why private violence is a public safety issue

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Story highlights

  • Leslie Morgan Steiner: Security services, experts must recognize a pattern
  • Those who abuse loved ones pose an increased threat to the public

Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of "Crazy Love." Her TED Talk on why victims stay in abusive situations has been viewed by more than 3 million people. She lives in Washington. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)Clichés about domestic violence abound: Abuse is a women's issue. What happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors. Let the family work it out; it's not my concern.

But dig into the patterns of domestic violence, and it's increasingly clear that abuse in intimate relationships can be an important warning sign for greater acts of violence, including domestic terrorism -- which makes it a concern for all of us.
It's especially heartbreaking that the latest incident of workplace violence occurred in Orlando, just days before the June 12 anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting there. As we approach that year mark since the deadliest mass shooting in the United States, it's important to step back and see the overlooked pattern linking seemingly unpredictable mass shootings like these. How can we still think domestic violence happens only behind closed doors, and that the damage is limited to a tragic inner circle of loved ones?
    Leslie Morgan Steiner
    Omar Mateen, the Florida man who killed 49 people at the Pulse club in 2016, reportedly beat his ex-wife, Sitora Yusifiy, and at one point held her hostage. She divorced him after only four months of marriage due to Mateen's alleged violent behavior and mental instability. Mateen's coworker, Daniel Gilroy, requested a transfer so he wouldn't have to work with Mateen because of his "anger management" issues and rage involving women, race and religion.
    This is a familiar refrain from other stories of mass shootings. Law enforcement and homeland security experts need to recognize what seems to be an increasingly clear pattern: people who abuse their loved ones are at an increased risk of repeating the pattern on a larger scale, in public, with victims who are strangers. Lost in the impact of Mateen's rage and the incomprehensible anger of other mass shooters is the fact that this tragedy was preventable and possibly predictable, and that there are myriad warning signs about potential acts of domestic terrorism that we, as a society, ignore.
    Cedric Anderson, the gunman who killed his wife and two school children in a San Bernardino elementary school in April 2017, had a multi-year, multi-partner history of relationship violence, and apparently went to his newly estranged wife's school to threaten or kill her that day.
    The Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers suspected of setting off two bombs in April 2013 that killed three and injured more than 200, was arrested in 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for hitting his wife in the face.
    In December 2012, right before Adam Lanza murdered 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, he slaughtered his mother, the woman who loved him more than anyone else on earth. He killed her as she lay in bed by firing four shots into her body. He had shown signs of being controlling and violent towards his mother and other family members for years.
    The horror overlaying the Orlando shooting, and all mass shootings, obfuscates the patterns and predictors of these violent attacks. The victims are unsuspecting. The sites could hardly be more innocuous: churches, clubs, schools, movie theaters, and race-day finish lines. At the Pulse nightclub, as in Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and Boston, the victims were gathered together for quintessentially American reasons: to celebrate their sexuality, to rejoice in their ability to push their bodies athletically, to become educated and learn to function as a caring community. Like these other gathering places, no single site holds more psychic refuge than our homes, the places where the vast majority of domestic violence attacks occur.
    The same is true for workplace shootings -- no one goes to work imagining that someone will show up and cause us harm. We don't yet, and may never, know the motivations of the recent workplace shooting at an Orlando business that makes accessories for recreational vehicles. But eyewitness reports make clear the fact that the gunman, Army veteran John Robert Neumann, Jr., singled out his five victims. Law enforcement officials reported that Neumann had a "negative relationship" with at least one of them. A childhood friend of Neumann's told the Orlando Sentinel that Neumann had a "troubled" home life as a child. These details come as no surprise to many domestic violence experts who know that this kind of workplace violence, and other acts of mass violence outside the home, have their roots in more intimate forms of violence that often transpire inside the home.
    Research shows a noteworthy connection between mass shootings and domestic or family violence. 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. Additionally, we need to recognize that relationship violence, with over 1.3 million victims annually, causes more harm, and more terror, than mass shootings.
    We must stop ignoring violence in families, and treat relationship abuse as what it is: a warning sign for future violence. In order to stop domestic terrorism, we need to stop domestic violence.
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    So as we, and the people of Orlando, face the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, it's good to remember that some mass shootings are not random. Or unexpected. There are warning signs. Too often, they are hiding in plain sight.