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The San Jose shooting and how to spot the risk factors associated with murder-suicides

A preoccupation with power and extreme control has been their mainstay. Many of these men are depressed, sometimes with delusional jealousy.

On Wednesday in San Jose, California, a transit worker opened fire on his co-workers and killed nine people before taking his own life. It’s a story that is at once thoroughly shocking and thoroughly familiar. Murder-suicides seem to be on the rise around the world, and the end of widespread Covid-19 closures in the United States has been repeatedly marked by deadly incidents like this one.

Preventing murder-suicides means examining and treating both sides of the deadly equation.

Earlier in the month, six people at a birthday party in Colorado Springs were also killed in a murder-suicide — a crime in which individuals are murdered and the perpetrators then either kill themselves or refuse to surrender and are killed by police. Days earlier, murder-suicides also occurred in Dixie County, Florida, and Shelby Township, Michigan.

The intrafamily settings of these attacks earlier in May are in fact more common than the workplace or school murder-suicides that often receive the most media attention. Whatever the media focus, it’s crucial that we study all of these manifestations deeply in order to observe the factors that can spark them — and glean signposts for what we can do to better protect against them.

A review of 49 studies conducted in 16 different countries found several identifiable characteristics of perpetrators and risk factors associated with murder-suicides: The killlers were almost always men. They were typically older than those who engage solely in acts of homicide or suicide. The victims were frequently women and children.

These criminal acts most often occurred in a home, and happened in the aftermath of a separation, divorce or other domestic conflict. In most circumstances, these men use firearms, followed by sharp force. A preoccupation with power and extreme control has been their mainstay. Many of these men are depressed, sometimes with delusional jealousy.

One of the practices that identify these common features are “psychological autopsies,” in which researchers and law enforcement agents collect information from those who witnessed the perpetrator's behavior before the event and conduct interviews with friends and family of the deceased. They look for indications in notes, diaries or computer searches. They comb through medical examiner reports and data obtained from criminal registries, police, courts and hospital records trying to decipher their intentions.

In cases of domestic assaults, the men often feel hopeless, like they’re losing domination. This act is a form of self-deception, an extremely distorted way for them to protect themselves from marginalization and reassert their masculinity. They can’t tolerate that what they thought was a good relationship is actually not. Though these men try to project that they are self-assured, it’s a facade. They brood and become more and more agitated. They take that perceived rejection and can’t digest it. They can’t see themselves as separate from their partners and families, which exposes their fragility even more.

From this generalized picture, distinct categories of actors can be identified. In an examination of national data of 728 murder-suicides between 1999 and 2005, researchers found differences in the perpetrator's primary intent depending on their age. Young adults seem to have more homicidal motives, while elders were more often suicidal.

That is, older men who are facing chronic physical illnesses and financial stress may decide to not only kill themselves, but also save their loved ones from a cruel world. Younger and middle-aged men report they can’t live without their significant other. But in all murder-suicide cases with their individual nuances and even inconsistencies, there’s an annihilation of self, and they want to take loved ones with them; a fusion in death.

Thomas Joiner, a psychologist and professor at Florida State University, writes in “The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide” that it’s important to look at how many of these men have a strong desire to die rather than or in addition to a desire to kill. He documents perpetrators’ prior self-harm or suicidal ideation and attempts. He argues these perpetrators justify their forms of violence by one of four motives — glory, justice, mercy and duty.

I asked Joiner what can be done to prevent these tragic events. Are there things that hospital administrators, law enforcement personnel, mental health professionals and policymakers should do to stop these men? “I think we need to focus on the perpetrator’s intent to die,” he replied. “And so, suicide prevention is our best hope.”

But Lenore Walker, who coined the phrase “battered women” to capture the serious, long-term effects of domestic abuse, emphasized the danger in allowing men with violent pasts to have access to the women and children who are so often victims in their hands.

“We must stop joint custody when there is domestic violence,” she stressed. “Batterers need total control and cannot share parental responsibility. They often use their contact with the children to continue the abuse and harassment of their former partners.” She gave examples such as bringing the children back late, engaging in verbal disagreements in front of the children and denying permission for things such as summer camp, school outings or even friends’ birthday parties on “their time.”

Walker noted that “the vast majority of perpetrators” who carry out murder-suicides have already committed domestic violence. Indeed, in San Jose, the ex-girlfriend of the shooter alleges that he committed rape and engaged in other violent behavior.

Walker recommended devoting more attention and resources to curbing interpersonal violence. These include a broad continuum of prevention efforts, such as teaching safe and healthy relationship skills to adolescents and young adults, engaging influential adults and peers through bystander education and empowerment, and concerted treatment of at-risk families.

As a trauma psychologist myself, my thought is, why don’t we do what both Walker and Joiner recommend? Preventing murder-suicides means examining and treating both sides of the deadly equation.