In October 2012, a man opened fire in a Wisconsin beauty salon killing three people and wounding four before fatally shooting himself. On April21 of this year, a 27-year-old in Seattle shot and killed four residents of an apartment complex before dying in a firefight with police. On June7 in Santa Monica, a gunman killed five people, three of them on a college campus, then was fatally shot by police.
What these mass killings all have in common, aside from the sadly predictable use of firearms, is that each involved domestic violence, either as an immediate or a related cause. The Santa Monica gunman grew up watching his father brutally beat his mother, later became a disturbed adult obsessed with weapons, and was kicked out of high school for making violent threats. In the Wisconsin and Seattle shootings, the perpetrators’ primary targets were their wife and girlfriend; the rest of the victims were bystanders who got in the way.
In an ideal world these scenes of terror – and others like them that take place in the United States every year – would be all the evidence you’d need to show that domestic violence isn’t just a problem for individual couples, but a serious public safety threat for all of us. As such, our state government should be strategizing to anticipate and avert it. But political decisions are rarely made under ideal circumstances, nor are they based solely on rational concerns. There are too many other variables lawmakers must consider: budget constraints, political alliances, the vicissitudes of public sentiment. Perhaps that’s why year after year Californians fail to do one of the key things necessary to avoid future tragedies: make a serious investment in domestic violence prevention.
Our state funds domestic violence services, of course, but does so almost exclusively in the area of intervention, the kind of help that’s offered once the violence has already happened. Over the years, policymakers have passed hundreds of laws to fund shelter services, protect victims rights and train law enforcement. In this legislative session, there were 15 bills explicitly concerning domestic violence intervention, but not a single domestic violence prevention bill, the kind of legislation that aims to stop violence from happening in the first place.
Domestic violence isn’t the only area that lacks this type of investment. Prevention in general often doesn’t fare well legislatively. A grand total of two violence prevention bills were proposed this session, one of which died and the other, Senate Bill 552, was sent to the governor Aug.30. Compared to the number of criminal justice and victim services bills introduced each year, violence prevention isn’t high on the to-do list, and prevention specifically targeting domestic violence is an even lower priority.
Our reluctance to support prevention may boil down to a simple matter of human psychology: We like to see immediate results. That’s something Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Domestic Violence, mentioned when I asked him why rallying people around prevention initiatives is so challenging.
“It is easier to measure outcomes for intervention programs than to measure prevention efforts,” he said. “For example, how many survivors were provided with shelter, legal services, counseling and medical services? These are tangible services that can be counted. When it comes to prevention programs we can’t say for certain that they lead to measurable decreases in domestic violence. Although we know from social science that prevention programs do work.”
Another way to think of it is that prevention programs do have measurable outcomes, but it takes a very long time to measure them. Ten-, 20-, even 30-year studies could be required to properly assess a program’s efficacy. In order for prevention to gain traction, lawmakers must be willing to invest their political capital in legislation that may not bear fruit until long after they’ve left office.
That’s a pretty tough sell. Gomez says in the coming months he plans to convene a series of hearings on domestic violence, and one of the issues he’ll highlight is prevention. He says lawmakers must lead the way by providing tools and information so communities can address prevention at the local level. Let’s hope that along the way he can persuade more of his colleagues that domestic violence prevention is a challenge worth taking on today so that Californians can reap the benefits tomorrow.
Camille Hayes, a Sacramento writer, is a domestic violence advocate who works for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The views expressed here do not represent those of the partnership or its member agencies. Read her blog, Lady Troubles, about politics and women’s issues, at www.ladytroubles.com. Reach her at email@example.com.