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American Roulette

The Untold Story of Murder-Suicide in the United States


Most Americans know Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as the perpetrators of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which the two high school students killed 13 people, wounded 23 more, and then killed themselves. Few, however, stop to realize that Harris and Klebold will count as two of the thousands of Americans who died as the result of firearms suicide in 1999, and that Columbine was only the most high-profile and deadly of the hundreds of murder-suicides that occurred that year. In murder-suicides, the offender murders his intended victims�family, friends and acquaintances, or strangers�before ending his own life (and it is almost always a man). Even when it is a component of a horrific event like Columbine, the phenomenon of murder-suicide garners little public attention as a significant contributor to gun-related death and injury. Yet, as one medical professional has observed, "because many murder-suicides result in the death or injury of family members and sometimes mass murder, they cause countless additional morbidity, family trauma, and disruption of communities."1

Columbine is far from the only murder-suicide that has seized the public's consciousness. Many high-profile murder rampages in past years have been murder-suicides, including:

  • Navistar International Corporation shooting (IL), February 2001
    Former Navistar employee William D. Baker uses a shotgun, two rifles, and a 38 caliber revolver to kill four co-workers and wound four others before turning the revolver on himself.

  • Wedgewood Baptist Church shooting (TX), September 1999
    Larry Gene Ashbrook uses two pistols to kill seven people, wound seven more, and finally kill himself in the church where a concert was about to begin. He also threw a pipe bomb, with no injuries.

  • Atlanta day trader shooting (GA), July 1999
    Mark O. Barton kills his wife and children at home with a hammer. Then, armed with two pistols, he goes to two brokerage offices where he kills nine more people and wounds 13 others, before killing himself in his vehicle.

  • Connecticut State Lottery Headquarters shooting (CT), March 1998
    Matthew Beck, who was on "stress related" leave from work, uses a 9mm pistol to kill his boss and three other top lottery officials, before killing himself.

  • Pettit & Martin law office shooting (CA), July 1993
    Gian Luigi Ferri uses two assault pistols and a 45 caliber pistol, with a mix of standard and Black Talon ammunition, to kill eight employees and wound six others. After shooting between 75 and 100 rounds, he then kills himself.

  • Luby's Cafeteria shooting (TX), October 1991
    George Hennard drives his truck through the restaurant window and, armed with two 9mm pistols, kills 23 people and wounds 20 others before killing himself.

  • Edmond Post Office shooting (OK), August 19862
    Patrick Henry Sherrill, a postal worker on the verge of being fired, uses two 45 caliber pistols and a 22 caliber pistol in a shooting rampage that leaves 14 coworkers dead and six others wounded. He then kills himself.

While these incidents may be viewed primarily as horrific public or workplace shootings, what they also have in common is that the shooters killed one or more people and then killed themselves�a murder-suicide.

There are three types of traumatic or violent death: homicides,a suicides, and unintentionalb deaths. These deaths account for tens of thousands of lives lost annually in the United States. Yet, within these categories there is a particularly disturbing trend which affects all age groups, all social strata, and all races and ethnicities: murder-suicide.

Murder-suicide is "a dramatic, violent event" in which a person commits a murder or murders, and then shortly after commits suicide.3 What makes these acts particularly disturbing is that they involve more than one person and usually involve a family. They almost always involve a firearm.

The Violence Policy Center (VPC) has undertaken a study to analyze murder-suicides in the United States. This study is one of the largest murder-suicide studies ever to be completed. Using a national clipping service, the VPC collected news clips of murder-suicides which occurred in the United States between January 1, 2001, and June 30, 2001. Both the murder and suicide had to occur within this time period and the murder and following suicide must have occurred within 24 hours of each other. Currently there is no national tracking system for these incidents.c So while there is no official data to ensure all incidents were included, this study provides the most accurate portrait of murder-suicide in America possible.

According to medical studies, between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths per year in the United States are due to murder-suicide.4 This VPC analysis reveals that, in the first half of 2001, there were 662 murder-suicide deaths, of which 293 were suicides and 369 were homicides. The study also found that there were 26 people wounded by the killers who did not die.d By doubling the fatalities for a yearly estimate, there were an estimated 1,324 murder-suicide deaths in 2001. This is within the standard range of estimates for murder-suicides. Due to the necessary limitations of our incident-collection method, this is most likely an underestimate. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our study may have missed a percentage of the murder-suicides. Whether this would be the result of an incident not being reported, not being reported as a murder-suicide, or not being published in a local paper is not known. However, if our study is an underestimate, then there may be up to 2,000 murder-suicide fatalities per year. In the absence of a national surveillance system, there is no means available for a complete and accurate count. However, the VPC study is most likely one of the most complete and accurate accountings ever undertaken.

a) Justifiable homicide, or self-defense homicide, is a specific category within the homicide designation.

b) The public health community no longer uses the term "accidental," but instead uses the term "unintentional" when referring to death and injuries of that nature. Unintentional shootings were often referred to as firearm "accidents." This characterization, however, implies that injuries occur by chance and can not be foreseen or prevented. Accordingly, public health research has replaced the term "accident" with the more accurate term "unintentional injury." This is based on the recognition that most unintentional injuries are preventable through the application of public health strategies including passive safety devices, public education, modification in product design, or limiting access to specific products.

c) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does record firearm homicides and suicides (as well as unintentional shootings), but there is no way to tell if a firearm homicide or suicide occurred in connection with the other. The recently established National Firearm Injury Statistics System (NFISS) at Harvard University is attempting to fill this national surveillance void. This pilot system started collecting data on deaths in the year 2000 in six states and several metropolitan areas. NFISS is also providing technical assistance to the CDC on designing the proposed National Violent Death Reporting System.

d) Incidents of attempted murder-suicide�those incidents where either the person tried unsuccessfully to kill someone, but then did successfully kill themselves, or incidents where the person did kill another person and tried unsuccessfully to kill themselves�were not included in the scope of this study.

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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.