Since the Orlando Shooting, where a domestic terrorist shot and killed 49 innocent people at Pulse nightclub, I’ve been holding onto the small moments: my son giving me good morning kisses and reciting lines from Toy Story, my partner's impromptu warm embraces, the privilege of feeling safe in my own home, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy filibustering for 15 hours in order to push a gun control bill to vote, the hope that one day our political leaders will have something more to offer than thoughts and prayers and moments of silence in the wake of mass tragedies. On Monday, I held onto my phone when it buzzed with the latest notification: the Senate had failed to pass a series of gun measures that would have made our country safer. Now, the only thing I find myself holding onto and thinking about and focusing on is the connection another mass killer has to the terrorist of my own life, my abusive father, and the way guns helped both men exact their will.
Mass shootings have become part of our American culture, or at least our collective story, and I’ve tried to ignore the perpetrators. I don’t like typing their names and I don’t like learning about their lives and I don’t like adding to the notoriety they clearly sought via violence and hate and the deaths of innocent people. Still, in the wake of the Pulse shooting, there was one glaring fact about Omar Mateen that I couldn’t ignore — a fact that so many mass shooters have in common. It's a fact that sends me spiraling backwards into my childhood home, where safety was fleeting and pain was a staple and where I was forced to hold onto the small moments in between the waves of terror, much like I am now.
Fear, control, abuse, anger, rage, violence, and a loaded gun are among the highest common denominators when analyzing shooters, and they were among the many traits my own father could claim as his figurative weapons of choice.
Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusify, alleges Mateen severely beat her and confiscated her paychecks and kept her isolated in their home until she left him in 2009. Yusify alleges Mateen was abusive, a character trait that, it turns out, many mass shooters share. In fact, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun control group, 16 percent of mass shooters have been previously charged with domestic violence, and 57 percent of the shootings included a spouse, former spouse, or family member among the victims or intended victims. In the past 25 years, more intimate partner homicides in the United States have been committed with guns than any other weapon, combined. Fear, control, abuse, anger, rage, violence, and a loaded gun are among the highest common denominators when analyzing shooters, and they were among the many traits my own father could claim as his figurative weapons of choice.
He was physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive to me, my mother, and my brother, and his violence ran free inside the silent walls of our home. He controlled my mother’s finances, and he didn’t like it if she left the house without him. When he was angry about work or dinner or a questionable call during a football game, he beat us. My father, unsurprisingly, also owned several guns.
For as out of control as he could be, he also seemed terrifyingly in control. His rage was unabashed, but his actions always seemed methodical, as if he was able to keep himself from going completely over the edge. His marriage to my mother was his second marriage, and I knew (by eavesdropping during conversations and arguments) that his first wife had accused him of domestic violence, even going so far as filing for a restraining order against him. I’ve often wondered if his first marriage made him a "better" abuser: if he learned that bruising or biting in areas typically covered by clothing kept the physical violence sufficiently hidden, and if provoking the word “broken family” when his wife threatened divorce would keep her from leaving. These were the tactics he used on my own mother. I also wonder if he knew that the presence of loaded weapons would paralyze us with an all-consuming fear, one that kept us tethered in submission, cooperative and passive in the midst of his rage.
At his most violent, I feared the day he walked into his closet, grabbed his handgun, and shoot my mother, my brother, me, or all of us at once, room by room, shot by shot. He was a ticking time bomb. I never knew which hand on the clock would mark the beginning of his rage, or which would signal the moment he went too far.
My father owned multiple weapons, and we all knew where they were. He told us they weren’t toys and showed them to us from time to time and let us know they were always loaded and we weren’t to ever touch them. At his most violent, I feared the day he would walk into his closet, grab his handgun, and shoot my mother, my brother, me, or all of us at once, room by room, shot by shot. He was a ticking time bomb. I never knew which hand on the clock would mark the beginning of his rage, or which would signal the moment he went too far. I tried to push that possibility out of my mind; the thought alone made me nauseous. What I didn’t realize, until years later and after my mother had safely left and divorced my father, was just how real the possibly of his gun violence in our home truly was.
With a loaded gun in front of her face, my mother alleged that my father threatened to go into our rooms and shoot us both if she didn’t leave the house.
In a fit of guilt and, honestly, relief, my mother told me about a night that still haunts her; one that filled her with so much fear that it kept her in an abusive relationship for 20 more years. She alleged that, during a violent altercation with my father, he took one of his handguns out of its case underneath their bed and pointed it at her. My brother and I (both very young) were asleep in our bedrooms, unaware of what was going on in the room across the hall. With a loaded gun in front of her face, my mother alleged that my father threatened to go into our rooms and shoot us both if she didn’t leave the house. Terrified, she did just that. She left. She drove to a nearby parking lot of a grocery store and wept, only to realize she'd left her children with a mad man and a loaded gun. She drove back, apologized for whatever she'd done to make my father angry, took all the blame, probably had sex with him to calm him down or make him happy or give him the control he always needed, and stayed in an abusive marriage until a year after I graduated college.
After every mass shooting this country experiences, we collectively ask, “Why?” We look for reasons and clues, anything to explain a completely inexplicable act. We stop and think about our own family members and friends and the ones we hold dear, and hope they aren’t next. We hold onto the small moments. We hold onto hope.
But what we need to start doing is passing commonsense gun control laws. While it could have been any of us, or our children, at Pulse nightclub or Newtown or Columbine or Aurora or San Bernardino or Blacksburg, assault rifles and handguns have also claimed the lives of so many women and children suffering from domestic abuse.
We can’t always tell the difference between a responsible gun owner and one who will kill innocent people, but we can do something. We can pass law reforms that make it harder for someone convicted, or even accused, of domestic abuse to purchase a firearm. We can stop selling (or make it harder to sell) guns to people who have a history of wanting to control, hurt, or kill others. We can refuse to sell guns to suspected terrorists, or individuals on terror watch lists. We could regulate private sales, so guns sold between private individuals can't be purchased without a background check or a waiting period or a vetting system of any kind, and sufficiently close the "private sale loophole."
We can’t, however, do any of these things when our politicians fail to pass universal background checks and vote down bills which would've required background checks at gun shows and on the internet. We can't do anything when we won't even delay guns sales to individuals on government terror watch lists for 72 hours. Our elected leaders fail to not only protect the American population at large, but also the estimated one in four women who've been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner.
Because the Senate failed to pass this latest gun reform bill, I’ll keep holding onto the small moments when my son gives me kisses and recites Toy Story and my partner makes me feel safe and I can remember that I’m far away from the abusive childhood I was raised in. I'll hold onto the promises of certain politicians, ones who vow this most recent failed bill won't be the last they bring to the Senate floor. But that won’t be the only thing I do. I'll advocate for commonsense gun control laws, call my local Congresspeople and I'll continue to fight for a brighter, safer future for my son and those around him. I'll hold on to the painful reminder that my mother, my brother, and I could have easily become just another statistic, another tally on the chart marking the innocent lives lost to gun violence, and I'll use it to remind me that change is essential. I'll keep hoping and praying and sending my thoughts and prayers to the victims of senseless violence, but I'll also let those hopes and prayers and thoughts move me to action.