Mildred Muhammad fled from Washington State to the Washington, D.C., area to escape her abusive ex-husband. But prosecutors said he tracked her down with a goal of killing her and gaining custody of their three children. Instead, John Allen Muhammad masterminded the killing of 17 people as the deadly half of the D.C. snipers, before the team’s arrest in October 2002.
Studies show there is more than a casual connection between domestic abuse and mass murder. Just recently, Devin Patrick Kelley was an abusive husband before shooting and killing 25 churchgoers Nov. 12 in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
In 54 percent of mass shootings, the gunman has also shot an intimate partner or relative, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Simply put, domestic violence is a gateway drug for potential mass shooters.
That lethal connection was discussed Nov. 16 at Temple Sinai in Washington, where Muhammad told her story, including how she became an advocate against domestic abuse, to an audience of about 50 people. Hanging over the proceedings were the recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and California, as well as Texas.
To illustrate the problem, Steve Klitzman, chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Group at Temple Sinai, told the audience that the United States has had the same number of mass shootings in six weeks as Canada had between 2000 and 2014.
“We think it’s a powerful statement that we’re meeting tonight to examine domestic violence and mass shootings in a house of worship after what happened in that small rural church in Sutherland Springs,” Klitzman said.
Muhammad said that she was unable to find counseling for her and her children after John Allen Muhammad was arrested. (He was executed in 2009.)
“So, I went to the library and got a book on counseling to start counseling myself and my kids.”
She now speaks publicly about domestic abuse. Her 2009 memoir, “Scared Silent,” describes her life with John Allen Muhammad.
If his abusive behavior began when he returned from his tour of duty in the military, Helga Luest’s then-husband became abusive when he resumed drinking 10 years ago.
He was angry and volatile when drunk, said Luest, a Democratic candidate for Maryland House of Delegates in District 18. Because of his volatility, Luest took the precaution of hiding his gun.
When she and their children came home one New Year’s Eve, he was “totally smashed” and yelled that he was going to kill her. He started smashing the house looking for his gun. Luest called the police.
Police arrived and told her she was in danger and she needed a plan to get out. But they didn’t arrest her husband because she had not been physically harmed.
Neither Luest nor Muhammed had physical scars from abuse, but neither do 80 percent of women who experience it, the women said. Emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, technological (like cyberstalking) — can be much more insidious, and women may not even realize at first what’s happening, said Stacy Lang of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.
“If it was so easy to spot abusers, we would spot them,” she said. They can be charming, funny, pillars of the community outside the home. “It is easier to spot things that don’t seem quite right.”
The presence of guns during a domestic violence incident increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent, according to the American Journal of Public Health. And more than half of the women killed by guns are done so by a family member or intimate partner.
Two new measures have been proposed in the past and are likely to come up again next year.
Maryland state Sen. Will Smith (D-District 20), and Maryland Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary (D-District 13) told the audience that they are working on a bill to provide an enforcement mechanism to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, as is already the law in Maryland.
A report by Court Watch Montgomery found that fewer than 10 percent of those convicted of these crimes were informed they were no longer allowed to have guns, said Laurie Duker, executive director of Court Watch Montgomery.
The bill has faced obstacles in both houses, but Smith and Atterbeary said they are optimistic.
“I think this year, given everything that has happened, I’m hoping everyone has the will to act,” Atterbeary said.
Maryland state Delegate Aruna Miller (D-District 15) is working to close what advocates say is another loophole: Domestic abusers are not allowed to buy regulated firearms, but the law is silent on antique guns. This was exploited by Donald Bricker in 2015 when he fatally shot his ex-girlfriend, Mariam “Shadé” Adebayo, with a replica of an antique black-powder revolver.
But for a bill to pass in Annapolis, she said, it takes incremental change until everyone is satisfied enough to pass it.
Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin said that domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous ones officers get. And they get a lot of them — Montgomery County authorities receive 5,000 911 calls related to domestic violence a year and files 3,000 protective orders, he said.
There are some tangible things that could be done locally to combat domestic and gun violence, Duker said, like more outreach funds to educate more women about the process of obtaining a protective order and becoming involved to lend more voices to the issue.
An average of almost three women in the United States are killed each day by current or former romantic partners, according to the Violence Policy Center.
“Almost every time I speak to a group or community, I hear, ‘Well, this doesn’t happen in our community,’” said Lang. “It’s happening everywhere, but everyone thinks it’s happening somewhere else.”