Murder-Suicide Research Sheds Little Light on Sandy Hook

The search for answers hits its limits.

A man comforts a young mourner at Honan funeral while attending the funeral for Jack Pinto, 6, one of the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.
A makeshift memorial for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 17, 2012

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

After the Newtown, Conn., massacre, the word floating around in my mind on a surge of dumb feeling is paucity. Death draws us up short, sends us racing for facts, as if the recovery of details about a tragedy counteracted, in some magical way, the losses sustained, the bodies destroyed. We tell ourselves that knowledge helps us take action. It gives us back control. In some cases, that rationale is even true—the more we understand about what led Adam Lanza to open fire on two classrooms full of students at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the more we can do to prevent attacks like his in the future. But sometimes the facts don’t lead us toward any brilliant new insights: They’re just momentary stays against confusion. In the frenzy to harvest all the minutiae of Lanza’s past, what sense or comfort did we really shake free? A year later, will it help that we pored over his brother’s Facebook account? That we knew the killer wore a pocket protector or could assemble a computer from parts?

Murder-suicides are among the most difficult crimes to comprehend. They represent a particularly wrenching type of violence. The emotions they summon are confused and incoherent: After a homicide, you feel horror and disgust for the perpetrator, compassion and grief for the victims. But people who destroy others and then themselves pre-empt the natural instinct for revenge, giving us, in their deaths, what we think we want—and then exposing the emptiness of that consolation.

The United States currently has no tracking system or database that captures the national incidence of murder-suicide. But a 1992 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that 1.5 percent of all suicides and 5 percent of all homicides fall under this category in a given year. In 1997, researchers led by Yekeen Aderibigbe estimated that murder-suicides cause 1,000 to 1,500 deaths annually in the United States.      

We can try to situate the Newtown shooting in a broader context of murder-suicides. But that’s not a simple task, since Lanza defied the typical profile as much as he conformed to it. While men commit up to 94 percent of these crimes, according to a 2006 study by the Violence Policy Center, the perpetrators are mostly embroiled in domestic disputes. Ninety percent of the time, they kill their romantic partners. (The recent case of NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher is a textbook example: Belcher and his girlfriend reportedly argued over their baby’s paternity before the athlete shot her and himself.) And when not carried out by jealous twentysomethings or thirtysomethings, murder-suicides tend to be enacted by frail old men who, no longer able to care for their ailing spouses, turn to violence out of a misguided sense of mercy. Or they’re mothers drawn to self-harm but anxious that their children will suffer too much without them. (Suicidologists call this impulse “deluded altruism.”) 

A more slender set of data exists on murder-suicides that occur outside the family. In 2010, psychologist David Lester examined suicide rates among “pseudo-commandos,” the subset of mass murderers who behave like soldiers. He found that 35 percent of such rampage killers take their own lives, compared with only 6 percent of serial killers. What’s more, the serial killers were more likely to commit suicide in order to avoid arrest or imprisonment, whereas rampage murderers had murkier motives. Perhaps, Lester speculated, the commandos “are energized by such a great amount of anger that even killing many victims is not sufficient to discharge it.” Their residual rage is then “turned inward on the self.”

So, rage. If we believe the poets, that quality blazed in civilization’s oldest warriors, who suited up for battle knowing they were destined to die alongside their enemies. “Sing, o Muse, of the rage of Achilles, murderous, doomed,” goes the first line of the Iliad. And according to Katherine van Wormer, a psychologist and author of Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and Murder-Suicides, a peculiar type of rage distinguishes people who commit murder-suicides from those who kill only themselves or only others—one mingled with self-hatred and psychopathy, the mental disorder most closely associated with anti-social behavior. Of course, van Wormer continued in her email to me, we know very little about what drove Adam Lanza in particular. Was he on drugs? Delusional? At 20, was he just beginning to manifest the signs of schizophrenia? (While psychosis alone would not explain such extreme actions, the disease does emerge in the late teens and early 20s.) In another email, David Lester conjures still more uncertainty: He wonders how the Lanza family dynamic played out. What did the guns represent?

To further complicate matters, in July of this year Mother Jones editor Mark Follman compiled news reports of rampage killings from 1982 to the present. (He updated his data on Friday to include Newtown.) Out of 62 instances of mass murder, only one other spree besides Lanza’s started in the home and fanned outward. The ways in which the Sandy Hook shooting breaks the template, resists our attempts to understand it, keep adding up.

But we can keep trying. Australian forensic scientist Paul Mullen thinks that some pseudo-commandos turn their weapons on themselves because they relish grand, theatrical gestures. In an interview with ABC News, he proposes, “These people are on a project to suicide. They go out there to die, and they go out to die literally in what they see as a blaze of glory. They are seeking a sort of personal vindication through fame or, more precisely, infamy.” Mullen’s account aligns with research tying grandiosity to psychopathy. It also subtly supports the hypothesis that, in many murder-suicides, the suicidal impulse is the primary one. To psychologists who’ve studied “suicide by cop,” staged massacres are often just a desire for one’s own death working itself free. Killers rehearse their suicides by slaying others, these experts claim. After spilling enough of the blood of strangers, the perpetrators are emboldened to annihilate themselves.

On the other hand, maybe the Freudian analyst Ernest Becker was right to assert, in 1973, an interchangeability between yearning for someone else’s death and yearning for your own. He subsumed both urges under thanatos, the death-drive. Like many Freudian explanations, Becker’s is more theoretical than empirical, with a big dose of classics thrown in. Still, could Adam Lanza have just been hopelessly, ferociously morbid?

There is, of course, one very simple way to understand what happened last Friday. The vast majority of murder-suicides—more than 90 percent of cases—involve guns. As van Wormer points out, it’s incomparably quicker and easier to fire a gun than it is to kill by almost any other method. Guns allow for both impulsivity and planning. They are loud and dramatic. They are the perfect weapon for a murder-suicide.  

But aside from our need for a firearm policy overhaul, nothing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings seems simple or straightforward. No single explanation plugs the wounds. I wonder, though: If we found one, would it make us feel any better?