by Diana Urban, former Chair of the Connecticut General Assembly Committee on Children, presently founder and president of Protecting Kids and Pets Partnership
Buffalo, Sandy Hook, Uvalde, Parkland, Columbine, Pearl High School. Terrible tragedies and many opinions as to what went wrong. Anguished cries about red flags that were ignored, including mental health issues, early childhood trauma, social media posts, the availability (or straight up purchase) of high-powered weapons. The list of potential causes and early warning signs of future mass shootings continues to grow.
But wait a second. There is one red flag that ties all of these massacres together, and that is a history of animal cruelty. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Helpless, voiceless creatures with no line of defense become the first victims of these tortured minds. Society’s reaction to such acts of violence against animals? Typically, it’s a slap on the wrist, if that.
I have spent a good part of my legislative career pointing out this link between animal cruelty and future violent behavior towards people. When I was in the Connecticut legislature, I had some success passing legislation that addresses the issue. Known as “Desmond’s Law” it was enacted in October of 2016. The first law of its kind in the nation the statute puts a pro bono lawyer or a law student under the supervision of a law professor in court to advocate for justice for the dog or cat victim of egregious abuse. Recently the court expanded the law in a case involving terrible cruelty to rabbits.
Preliminary empirical evidence is very clear and the courts are taking animal cruelty much more seriously. There is no “get out of jail free’ card any more. Other states have been considering similar legislation and Maine did so when it passed “Franky’s Law,” in 2019.
But on a national scale, this is just a small start. Each time I see another massacre where the shooter started with animal cruelty that went completely unaddressed, my heart aches. Children could have been saved by simply recognizing that animal cruelty is an act of violence, before the perpetrators murder children, teachers, grocery store patrons, church goers, concert attendees, post office workers.
There are many graphic incidences of violent cruelty to animals that preceded acts of violence toward people. Even though the FBI recognizes animal cruelty as a discreet offense that it now tracks, government—and society—have been painfully slow in recognizing animal cruelty as a key red flag.
New York’s red flag law (known as “extreme risk protection laws”) rests on the recognition that a person is a danger to themselves or others and bars them from obtaining a firearm. Nowhere does it mention that a history of egregious animal cruelty should be included in the determination of what constitutes a red flag danger. A person can starve or strangle a dog to death, throw a kitten against a wall, beat a dog on the head until it’s unrecognizable and at most might be placed in a meaningless, useless diversionary program, which typically involves periodically calling in to a probation officer.
So what was the case with these two recent horrendous massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde? Both shooters (and I deliberately do not mention their names) had not only a history of animal abuse but also posted their twisted acts on social media. The Buffalo shooter made videos of himself abusing animals, which included cats that he killed. The Uvalde shooter stabbed a cat in the neck until the cat was decapitated. He also posted his “kills” on social media.
There seems to be a political willingness on both sides of the aisle right now—both nationally and at the state level--to at least consider red flag laws as a way to help prevent a school shooting or other mass violent event. If those laws don’t prominently include animal cruelty in the list of early warning signs, then it’s likely that many more children and adults are going to needlessly and tragically die.