• Ideas
  • Guns

We Need to Talk About Animal Cruelty and Mass Shooters

5 minute read

Levin, Esq. is Chief Policy Counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice and can be reached at mlevin@counciloncj.org and on Twitter at @marcalevin.

Amid arguments over whether the recent massacres in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York should lead policymakers to focus more on gun control or mental illness, there is an elephant in the room. One trait the alleged perpetrators in both cases share in common is a propensity for animal cruelty.

Both disturbed 18-year-olds bragged about and posted online content describing or depicting their abuse of cats and other animals. This must prompt lawmakers to ask whether measures to prevent animal cruelty and intervene before it escalates could avoid more harm—to animals and humans alike.

Research has long identified animal cruelty as a strong predictor of subsequent violence against persons, finding that animal abusers are as much as five times more likely to harm humans. The correlation is particularly robust for family violence. Indeed, the Uvalde, TX case began with the suspect shooting his grandmother.

Of course, most people who abuse animals don’t become mass shooters, and there are other characteristics many mass shooters share, such as misogyny and violence against women. Indeed, in 27 out of 46 mass shooting case studied, the perpetrator either had a history of domestic violence or killed an intimate partner or family member in the incident.

Nonetheless, a review of school shootings from 1988 to 2012 found that 43 percent of the shooters had histories of animal cruelty, and the perpetrator of the 2018 high school massacre in Parkland, FL was a chronic animal abuser as well. Given reports that the Uvalde shooter was bullied in school, it’s also notable that youngsters who engage in animal cruelty are more than twice as likely as others to be victims of abuse themselves.

The connection between animal cruelty and violence against persons is hardly surprising, given that animals feel and react to pain in ways similar to humans. It is, however, difficult to disentangle the effects, since the same type of person inclined to abuse animals may be more inclined to harm humans and, at the same time, repeated abuse of animals could further desensitize the perpetrator to the impact of their actions.

This dynamic is sometimes referred to as “moral disengagement.” In this way, a person who intentionally inflicts pain on animals divorces themselves from the consequences through techniques such as rationalization and blaming the victim that may also characterize a similarly violent impulse towards humans. Regardless of what explains the correlation, if those aware of a young person’s cruelty to animals ignore it, a valuable opportunity to intervene is missed, especially given evidence that this behavior is most easily corrected at an early age.

Focusing on three priorities can help address animal cruelty: 1) promoting reporting and interventions that combine accountability and treatment, 2) providing better training for law enforcement, and 3) fostering information sharing and collaboration across agencies and jurisdictions.

When it comes to reporting, one challenge is that those who are most likely to be aware of this behavior are family and friends, who may be reluctant to turn in the abuser given that animal cruelty is rightfully a criminal offense—typically a misdemeanor. However, animal cruelty does not even show up among the offenses for which youth are incarcerated, which may reflect a recognition that locking up children most often compounds their problems rather than resolving them.

Though incarceration isn’t the answer, neither is ignoring this problem. Fortunately, there are well-established interventions involving components such as one-on-one counseling and accountability measures, including required participation in group sessions that focus on goals such as challenging internal beliefs, frustration management, and development of empathy.

Second, training for law enforcement should be enhanced. Small jurisdictions often lack an animal control agency or officer, such as in Indiana where half of counties lack this service. Accordingly, general police officers in all areas need sufficient knowledge to identify cruelty incidents, even if they refer the case to a specialized officer, while in other jurisdictions a general officer may bear sole responsibility for investigating the case. One study found that just 19 percent of officers receive such training and a separate survey of officers revealed that 49 percent felt that they needed such training but lacked it. Training addresses some of the specialized aspects of these cases, including preserving live evidence and working with veterinarians.

A final priority should be sharing information and fostering collaboration among relevant entities. For example, just 14 states, not including Texas or New York, require child welfare employs and animal control officers to cross-report incidents of ongoing animal cruelty. Pursuant to a law passed by Connecticut lawmakers in 2011, its agencies for families and children and agriculture have joined forces with the Attorney General to share information on common cases.

Animal cruelty is worth fighting on its own terms, but all too often, it’s also a canary in the coal mine. While it is far from the only factor for policymakers to address in seeking to prevent mass shootings and other violence, it is an area that has received short shift—and one where bipartisan agreement might be possible.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.