Murder-suicides are a tragic, but common, occurrence in the news. Eleven murder-suicides occur in the U.S. each week. A husband shoots his wife and four children after dinner, then turns the gun on himself. A man kills his girlfriend when she gets home from work, then takes his own life. A 60-year-old man kills his wife of 40 years in her sleep, then kills himself.
All of these situations are disturbing and all have a common element: intimate partner violence. Most people reading these stories in the news believe that the perpetrator “snapped” or had a previous mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, that caused this tragedy. Those beliefs are inaccurate and misinformed: the only “problem” that the offender has is that he is abusive and violent. He did not “snap” or “lose control.” He made a choice. Men who murder their intimate partners and/or children have displayed a previous pattern of violent behavior, which has most likely escalated over time. Just like a man would not hit a woman on a first date, he would also not shoot his wife the day after their wedding. Intimate partner violence is a course of conduct crime, and abusers don’t put all their cards on the table at once.
According to the Violence Policy Center (VPC), over 1,300 people died in murder-suicides in 2017, which is most likely an underestimate because of lack of data and accurate reporting. 65% of the murder-suicides involved an intimate partner. Of those, 96% were females killed by their intimate partners. Among the incidents where females were killed by intimate partners, 94% involved a gun. 82% of those murder-suicides occurred in the home. 42% of the victims were children and teens under the age of 18.
The Violence Policy Center coined a term to describe murder-suicides by a male perpetrator involving three or more victims: “Family annihilators.” 55% of the murder-suicides in the VPC report involved a male perpetrator and three or more victims. As previously stated, the men in this situation will have displayed violent behavior before the fatal incident. However, once they decide that they want to murder their intimate partners and/or family, the mindset becomes “If I can’t have you, nobody can.” For instance, a man’s wife leaves the home with their children because it is a toxic environment. In a healthy relationship, the man would grieve, sign divorce papers and move on with his life. In a violent relationship, the man chases down his wife and children and shows up with a gun, ready to kill them, because he’s afraid that he has lost control over his family and needs to assert power and control one last time.
Sometimes, the media can portray murder-suicides as: “He lost control and blacked out. He didn’t know what he was doing; that’s why he killed his family and himself.” The argument that the male perpetrator didn’t know what he was doing or lost control of himself is misleading, and doesn’t take the dynamics of power and control into account. Intimate partner violence is all about power and control, and murder-suicides are no exception. The perpetrator has full control over himself and his decisions, and knows exactly what he is doing.
In order to begin to reduce the number of murder-suicides each year, we need to get guns out of the hands of offenders, and increase protections for survivors of intimate partner violence. The presence of a gun in an abusive relationship increases the risk of femicide by 400%. 4.5 million women in the U.S. have been threatened by their intimate partner with a firearm. Guns should be used to save lives, not take them, but for women in the U.S., it is the opposite.
Written by Megan Baak, Operations Manager for the Conference on Crimes Against Women.