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American Roulette

The Untold Story of Murder-Suicide in the United States


Most people think of suicide as a solitary act, affecting only one person. Yet, the effects of murder-suicides go far beyond the shooter: family, friends, co-workers, and absolute strangers are among those who are gunned down as a result of these acts of desperation. During the six-month period tallied in this study, there were 293 suicides�yet the total number of deaths was 662. More people died from murders associated with the suicide�369�than from the suicides themselves. These numbers call into grave question the common belief that suicide, especially firearms suicide, is a solitary act that affects only the shooter.

The catalytic component in murder-suicide is the use of a firearm. Every major murder-suicide study ever conducted has shown that a firearm�with its unmatched combination of lethality and availability�is the weapon most often used to murder the victims, with the offenders then turning the gun on themselves.21 In this study, the access to a gun was the critical component for almost all of the murder-suicides. Of the 54 murder-suicides with more than one homicide victim, 52 were firearm-related. The presence of a gun allows the offender to quickly and easily kill a greater number of victims. If there had not been easy access to a firearm, these deaths may simply have been injuries, or not have occurred at all.

The pattern to murder-suicide is distressingly simple: a male offender, a female victim, and a gun�but literally anyone can be caught in its wake. Unlike homicides, murder-suicides are far more likely to involve family or intimate acquaintances, and have different demographics than the typical homicide or suicide. As a result, murder-suicides require further study as a specific category of death to help craft more effective prevention strategies.

In the short term, the nexus between murder-suicide and firearm availability must be recognized. As is the case with suicide, firearms should be made unavailable to those at risk for murder-suicide. To ensure increased safety for families from the full range of gun death and injury, firearms should not be brought into the home. Just as importantly, murder-suicide, as is the case with suicide and the vast majority of firearm homicides, illustrates the stark limitations of gun control measures�such as the licensing of handgun owners and the registration of the weapon�that focus solely on the user, and not on the actual presence of the gun.

In the long term, since the majority of murder-suicides in the United States are firearm-related (as are the majority of murders and suicides, separately), more comprehensive measures must be taken to reduce death and injury from these uniquely unregulated consumer products. Guns are virtually the only consumer product not regulated for health and safety by a federal agency (the other being tobacco). Legislation is pending in Congress that would establish comprehensive health and safety regulation of the gun industry. The Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act would finally end the firearm industry's deadly exemption from regulation. The bill would:

  • Create a system of comprehensive data collection for firearm-related incidents. This would enable the collection of specific, accurate data regarding the number of murder-suicide incidents that occur each year, along with other valuable information such as the relationship(s) of the perpetrator to the victim(s), as well as the types of firearms used. The availability of such data would help identify patterns in murder-suicides, and thereby help in the development of effective intervention strategies.

  • Expand Treasury's authority to take action against "bad apple" gun retailers who are knowingly providing firearms to domestic abusers or other persons prohibited from possessing firearms. This would aid in restricting the availability of firearms to those prone to domestic violence and those with severe mental disabilities�common precursors to murder-suicide.

  • Create a mechanism to identify the types of firearms most prone to use in murder-suicides and allow for the removal from the market of those guns determined to present an unreasonable risk to public safety.

  • Subject the firearms industry to the same standards that already apply to virtually all other consumer product manufacturers.

Finally, the most important step toward both these short-term and long-term goals is the recognition that suicide does not affect only those who pull the trigger.



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 All contents � 2002 Violence Policy Center


The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.