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Murder-Suicide in Families

Date Published
April 6, 2011

Cases in which one intimate partner murders another and the children and then kills him- or herself are rare and usually garner widespread media coverage. This type of murder-suicide is called familicide.

In almost all of these cases, the killer is a white, non-Hispanic man [1].

Cases in which women kill their male partners, their children and themselves are extremely rare and thus gain even more widespread media coverage.

Learn more about:

Risk Factors

Common characteristics of murder-suicide in families include:

  • Prior history of domestic violence [2], [3].
  • Access to a gun [4], [5].
  • Threats, especially increased threats with increased specificity [6].
  • Prior history of poor mental health or substance abuse, especially alcohol [7].

Previous history of abuse is by far the most dominant risk factor. In one study, 82 percent of the men who killed their intimate partners were known to the authorities — treatment professionals, the military or the criminal justice system, for example [8].

In most cases, the man exhibits possessive, obsessive and jealous behavior. There is a gradual build-up of tensions and conflicts after which an event leads the man to act. The triggering event is often the woman's announcement that she is leaving.

The time immediately after a woman leaves an abusive partner is the most dangerous [9].

Read an article from the NIJ Journal about a tool to help assess a woman's risk of being a victim of murder suicide (pdf, 6 pages).

Role of Guns

The data are clear: More incidents of murder-suicide occur with guns than with any other weapon. Access to a gun is a major risk factor in familicide because it allows the individual to act on his or her rage and impulses.

In 591 murder-suicides, 92 percent were committed with a gun [10]. States with less restrictive gun control laws have as much as eight times the rate of murder-suicides as those with the most restrictive gun control laws.

Compared to Canada, the United States has three times more familicide; compared to Britain, eight times more; and compared to Australia, 15 times more.

Read more about gun-violence prevention.

Role of Shelters

Domestic violence shelters are meeting the needs of abuse survivors and their children, providing services like housing, mental health counseling and legal assistance. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of domestic violence survivors rate the assistance they received at their shelters as "very helpful," and another 18 percent rate it as "helpful."

Role of the Economy

The very low number of murder-suicide incidents makes it hard for researchers to understand exactly what role the economy plays in these cases. What is known is that economic distress is a factor, but it is only one of several factors that trigger a man to murder his family. In most cases, the couple has a history of disagreement over many issues, most commonly money, sex and child-rearing.

Although personal economics like the loss of a job may be one of several critical factors, most experts agree that the strength or weakness of the national economy is not related to the frequency of murder-suicides, despite media coverage that suggests otherwise.

Date Published: April 6, 2011