The pattern is striking. Men who are eventually arrested for violent acts often began with attacks against their girlfriends and wives. In many cases, the charges of domestic violence were not taken seriously or were dismissed.
Before Tamerlan Tsarnaev was suspected of carrying out the bombing of the Boston Marathon, he was arrested for beating his girlfriend. When Man Haron Monis held 17 people hostage at a Lindt Chocolate cafe in Sydney, he had already been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. Before George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death in Florida, his ex-girlfriend accused him of physically assaulting her. He faced no charges, but has been arrested twice for alleged domestic violence since 2013.
A recent study found that more than half of the 110 mass shootings in the United States between January 2009 and July 2014 included the murder of a current or former spouse, an intimate partner or a family member. Everytown for Gun Safety, the group that released the study, found a “noteworthy connection between mass-shooting incidents and domestic or family violence.”
This connection is not limited to mass shootings. An analysis of the criminal justice history of hundreds of thousands of offenders in Washington State suggests that a felony domestic violence conviction is the single greatest predictor of future violent crime among men.
With so much at stake, responding to violence against women should be a top priority for everyone. Research tells us that violence is a learned behavior.
Boys who grow up in homes with abuse and domestic violence are nearly four times more likely to perpetrate domestic violence than those who grow up in homes without it. Because violence in the home tends to be a child’s first experience of it and is often defended as either inevitable or trivial, it becomes the root and justifier of all violence.
Men who commit violence rehearse and perfect it against their families first. Women and children are target practice, and the home is the training ground for these men’s later actions.
By intervening early and stopping violence in the home, we ensure the safety of the women and children who are the first victims. We can also take steps to make it harder for perpetrators to go on to commit additional crimes, whether inside or outside the home. We could, for instance, decide that anyone who committed domestic violence could not buy or own a gun. Yet in 35 states, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes and those subject to restraining orders can buy and carry guns. Closing these and other gaps in federal and state laws on domestic violence will save women’s lives, and by extension, many more.
And yet keeping guns out of the hands of domestic violence perpetrators is only a small part of the solution. Preventing assaults at home from happening in the first place is the key to ensuring the safety of our communities and the security of our nation.
And while some consider that problem simply too big to tackle, the truth is that we know where to look for solutions. In their landmark study published in the American Political Science Review in 2012, Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon looked at 70 countries over four decades to examine the most effective way to reduce violence against women. They found that the mobilization of strong, independent feminist movements was a more important force in reducing violence against women than the economic wealth of a nation, the representation of women in government or the presence of progressive political parties. Strong and thriving feminist movements help to shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address violence against women.
As activists, we see this every day. The hundreds of feminist organizations that work on this issue around this country are the best chance we have of ending the epidemic of private violence, and therefore the epidemic of public violence.
There are many small grass-roots groups that go after private and public violence at their common root. Among them are A Long Walk Home(founded by one of us), which uses art to empower young people to end violence against girls and women; A Call to Men, which mobilizes men to stand up to violence by other boys and men; and Tewa Women United, which unites indigenous women to heal and transform their communities.
Safe and democratic families are the key to ensuring safe and democratic communities. Until women are safe in the home, none of us will be safe outside the home.
Pamela Shifman is the executive director of the NoVo Foundation. Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-founder of A Long Walk Home.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 3, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: To Stop Violence, Start at Home. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe