Why So Many Murder-Suicides?

By van Wormer, Katherine | USA TODAY, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Why So Many Murder-Suicides?


van Wormer, Katherine, USA TODAY


ANYONE WHO READS or watches the news is aware of the spate of murder-suicides taking place. We have seen school shootings, family killings, and adult partner murders--all ending in suicide or attempted suicide. Yet, most of these cases are not reported nationally, they are in headlines in the local paper. For example, in Iowa, a low crime rate state, 106 individuals killed a partner or spouse in a domestic situation over the last decade. The main factor appeared to be a pending breakup. Ninety-six of the killers were men, about half committed suicide shortly afterward.

According to the Violence Policy Center (VPC), at least 662 people died in murder-suicides in the U.S. in a recent six-month period. That averages out to about two such killings per day. Three-fourths of the murder-suicides involved "intimate partner" situations, of these, 94% were male attacks on women. In one weeklong stretch, the following occurred:

* A 27-year-old Ansonia, Conn., man strangled his wife, then jumped off their roof to his death. The two were Albanian; theirs was an arranged marriage, one reportedly fraught with difficulty.

* A Milwaukie, Ore., couple in their 80s. who often had been seen strolling arm-in-arm, was found dead of gunshot wounds, a case of suspected murder-suicide.

* Problems with money and child custody seemed to be precipitating factors in this Union, S.C., murder-suicide committed by a husband in his 20s.

* An elderly New Providence, N.J., couple was found dead in what authorities called a murder-suicide. The husband's note seemed to confirm this.

* A Lakewood, Wash., couple in their 20s was found shot to death in an apparent homicide and suicide. Police said the man had broken into his ex-girlfriend's home with a hammer. There was a history of stalking.

* A Landenberg, Pa., man who shot and killed his wife and two sons before killing himself was said to be suffering from depression.

During the six-month period of the VPC study, more people died from murder associated with the suicide (369) than from suicide itself (293). Children in the family were orphaned, and others were left in a state of despair. The pattern of the murder-suicide is predictable: a male perpetrator, female victim, decision by the woman to leave the man, and a gun. The typical Florida pattern, meanwhile--Florida had the largest number at 35 of the VPC total--involved an elderly male overwhelmed by his inability to care for an infirmed wife.

There are tour basic patterns or types of these tragic crimes, three of which involve couples--murder-suicide, victim-precipitated murder-suicide, altruistic murder-suicide of the elderly, and suicide bombers.

Murder-suicide. A report from Washington State University sees such events as a risk factor distinct to the military in which armed men are trained to kill, and many later carry the invisible scars of war. Soldiers who have fought in Iraq have a high rate of murder and suicide and sometimes both. It is impossible to tell if the externalized (homicide) or internalized (suicide) aggression is primary, whether we are referring to soldiers or just ordinary citizens. Some researchers argue that murder is the primary motive here. Indeed, the urge to kill is an overwhelming factor. Regarding murder and suicide, it may not be a case of either-or but of both-and.

The suicide impulse also is prominent in mass school shootings, such as occurred at Columbine. The usual scenario is that a boy is teased and bullied at school. He hates himself and is seething with rage. Influenced by media accounts of mass killings about which he obsesses, he gets a gun and goes on a rampage before killing himself. He may be creating a situation in which someone else will kill him. Hurt and anger to the extent of complete disregard for others' lives are key emotions here. The desire to kill as well as to be killed obviously is a major component. …

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