This is not a theater review. Kelly Robertson performed the one-woman show Natural Shocks by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Erin Cawley, for a single sold-out night at Wilbury Group on Feb 18. Robertson has demonstrated impressive ability on stage, as I’ve noted previously in such shows as Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo at Contemporary Theater Company, and she did a brilliant job in this passion project of hers.
But Natural Shocks is an explicitly political play whose playwright on her own website describes it as “a national campaign of theater activism against gun violence.” The play takes its title from Shakespeare’s famous “to be or not to be” speech in Hamlet, where one of the supposed benefits of the “undiscovered country” of death is to “end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” The play is unusually well written and entertaining for a political play that only becomes explicitly political in its last couple of minutes. Much of the groundwork is laid by the character of Angela (Robertson), who tells us if she had a dog she would name it “Hamlet” and is such a natural insurance agent (and former roulette croupier) that she collects dice and gives impromptu lectures with a whiteboard, explaining how statistics is about looking backward from data while probability is about looking forward from models. I’ll resist the strong temptation now to inject a lecture on a variety of topics ranging from mathematics to weather forecasting, but suffice it to say that, while her summary is not really accurate, the valid point she is making is that anything that actually happens, even if predicted to be unlikely, after it happens has become absolutely certain.
Without introducing spoilers, the play is intended to raise two questions in the minds of the audience. Firstly, what is the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings? Secondly, is it a wise choice for someone who is under threat as a victim of domestic violence to acquire a gun for their own protection?
We are told that 54% of mass shootings are committed by someone with a history of domestic violence, but it turns out that is highly dubious: every recitation of that claim I’ve been able to locate is attributed back to an analysis from Everytown for Gun Safety, an activist group founded and financed by current presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, that I have previously accused of outright lying and dishonesty in gun statistics (“Opinion: Guns — The Facts, the History, the Philosophy”, Feb 28, 2018, https://motifri.com/gun-facts/), noting the “FactChecker” column in The Washington Post in 2015 awarded the organization “Four Pinocchios,” the most negative rating reserved for “whoppers” rather than mere lies. Even the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an ordinarily trustworthy organization in published statistics, has a fact sheet “Guns and Domestic Violence” that makes a similar claim (44%) cited in a footnote to Everytown. This often-repeated statistical claim, then, depends upon a single source known to be untrustworthy.
But what if it were true? It should come as no surprise that anyone so possessed by rage (as opposed to self-defense) that they are willing to kill an intimate partner would be more likely to kill others, especially if part of the goal was to commit “suicide by cop” in the process. We are asked to believe that domestic violence is a warning precursor to mass shootings, but mass shootings are very rare and any attempt to stop mass shootings by intervening in domestic violence cases would produce orders of magnitude more false positives, people who commit domestic violence but will never become mass shooters. More importantly, domestic violence is an undeniably serious problem in its own right, so fighting it should be motivated by the direct harm it causes to victims of domestic violence. Talking about mass shootings in this context is pure distraction.
We are also asked to conclude that a domestic violence victim is unwise to acquire a gun for protection because there is a correlation between the presence of guns in domestic violence situations and resulting homicides, but often this is misstated as a causative relationship, even by the generally reliable NCADV: “The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.” Almost all repetitions of this claim are ultimately attributed to a study published in 2003 in the American Journal of Public Health (doi: 10.2105/ajph.93.7.1089), a highly respected peer-reviewed scholarly publication — but the actual study never said that. The study seems methodologically sound and carefully conducted, interviewing “reliable informants” in cases of women killed by abusive partners and “control women” who were in abusive relationships but were not killed: its stated goal was emphasized in its title, “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results From a Multisite Case Control Study.”
Shockingly, this study which found perpetrators had access to a firearm in 65.0% of abuse cases that resulted in homicide but 23.9% of abuse cases that did not result in homicide, also found victims had access to a firearm in 5.0% of abuse cases that resulted in homicide and the exact same 5.0% of abuse cases that did not result in homicide. To emphasize, this widely cited study directly contradicts the key myth (as in this play) it is usually cited to support that domestic violence victims increase their own risk by acquiring access to a gun. The study employs six different statistical models that estimate the increased correlation with homicide from the perpetrator having access to a firearm between 5.38 and 9.21 times more likely and one statistical model that estimates the increased likelihood of homicide from the victim having access to a firearm at 0.22 (that is, 1/0.22=4.55 times less likely). The numbers are complicated in trying to distinguish whether one or both parties had access to a firearm.
Nor is access to a firearm by the perpetrator an unusual or distinctive correlate with homicide: abusive perpetrators had an alcohol problem in 52.0% of homicide cases and 30.9% of non-homicide cases; they were illicit drug users in 65.4% of homicide cases and 30.4% of non-homicide cases. There are even more striking dissimilarities that are utterly unsurprising: perpetrators threatened to kill the victim in 73.6% of homicide abuse cases but only 14.6% of non-homicide cases.
People subjected to a domestic violence restraining order have been prohibited under federal law since 1996 from possessing firearms.
As became clear at the talkback after the play moderated by director Cawley with Robertson, joined by Giovanna Rodriguez from gun-control advocates Moms Demand Action (which is a part of Everytown) and Prof. Juli Parker from UMass Dartmouth, there are enormous obstacles facing victims of domestic violence, ranging from the legal system to basic economics. (Disclosure: Parker is a Motif contributor.) Of course, homicide is only the most extreme kind of intimate partner violence, and the vast majority of situations never rise to that level. Fixing these practical obstacles should be a priority, because domestic violence is not a gun problem: domestic violence is a domestic violence problem, and it requires money, commitment, support, and infrastructure.
Not only do I find the play and its anti-gun message unsupported by objective evidence and outright, flat wrong, but I regard it as anti-feminist: while domestic violence victims are both male and female, as well as straight, gay, or bisexual, there are certainly prevalence differences among these sub-populations of gender and orientation, so if a domestic violence victim chooses to acquire a firearm for protection, they should have the freedom to do so. In my view, gun control advocates, no matter how well-intentioned, want to disempower women.