Minnesotans are reeling after news last week that a family of five, including three children, was found dead in a Greenwood home after a murder-suicide. Owing to the number of victims in this case, we are also dealing with a “mass murder” in Minnesota — a homicide event with four or more victims within a 24-hour period. Unquestionably, this tragedy will haunt family, friends, colleagues, classmates, first responders and others who knew the Short family for the rest of their lives. As criminologists who have researched murder-suicide at length, we feel compelled to try to make sense of this senseless crime.
Murder-suicide is an extremely rare event. The best estimates extrapolated from regional data put the U.S. murder-suicide rate at 0.2 to 0.3 per 100,000 people. To put that in perspective, the overall homicide rate is about 4.5 per 100,000 people and the suicide rate is 12.5 per 100,000. The numbers explain why we know a lot about people who murder and people who commit suicide, but not nearly as much about people who do both and do so en masse.
What we do know is that compared with perpetrators of simple homicides or suicides, murder-suicide offenders are more likely to be white males married to their victims. They also tend to be middle-aged, employed, and classified as being in the middle class or living in a middle-class area. Brian Scott Short, 45, married father of three, owner of a $2 million home, fit the bill.
Further, most murder-suicides involve an intimate partner. They occur in residential settings (specifically, the bedroom) and children are often victims of, or witnesses to, them. Most murder-suicides with three or more victims involve a male family annihilator — someone who kills his intimate partner and children before killing himself. Once again, the profile fits.
Access to firearms is a significant risk factor in murder-suicides in the U.S. The gun is important, because the case-fatality rate for suicide attempts with guns is higher than that of other methods, including drug overdoses and cutting. Again, Short shot and killed his wife and three teenage children before turning the gun on himself. And unless he left a death note, we may never know the true nature and extent of his motivations.
Interestingly, prior criminal history is not a significant predictor of homicide-suicide, which means that Short’s benign public image as a nurse and a blogger is not surprising. In many cases, however, a family annihilator is afflicted with mental illness and has hidden financial or other problems and feels his family is better off dying with him than remaining alive to face these problems.
Beyond the anxiety of deluded altruism, depression is much more likely in those who commit murder-suicide than in those who commit homicide alone. We do not yet know the motivation for Short’s actions. Perhaps we never will, but murder-suicides typically demonstrate both inward and outward blame attribution — homicide relieves a sense of helplessness, while suicide overcomes the ensuing guilt.
With the above said, this event was perfectly predictable, right? Wrong. As noted, murder-suicide is a rare event, and rare events are difficult to predict. The profile is pretty broad: Male. White. Middle-aged. Married. Employed. Possibly depressed (note that around 8 percent of Americans are depressed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). As such, we overpredict, resulting in too many false positives. Worse still, we start labeling already-troubled individuals who fit the profile as potential killers, potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Only extreme steps that we are unable or unwilling to take could possibly reduce the risk of murder-suicide — gun control, restoring our sense of community, rounding up anyone who looks or acts at all suspicious.
Murder-suicide is unfortunately the price we pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued. Hence why, for the victims and their loved ones, events last week will remain another senseless act of violence in America.
James Densley and Susan Hilal teach in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming “Minnesota’s Criminal Justice System” (Carolina Academic Press, 2015).