According to CDC data, 2017 saw nearly 40,000 American gun deaths — 23,854 of those by suicide. That’s a 40-year record high and one parents should particularly find worrisome. The data is concerning on its own, sure, but when the CDC numbers are understood in the context of trends in familicide, a clear threat emerges. Familicide, the slaughter of children and a spouse, is a crime predominantly committed by fathers under psychological (and often economic) stress — men who often turn guns on themselves. The issue? Gun deaths are up because suicides among men are up. Suicidal men — well, suicidal fathers — pose a real risk to children. The availability of guns makes the male suicide epidemic, which is concerning in its own right, a child safety issue.
The facts are wildly depressing. Despite declines in gun ownership, gun deaths continue to climb. And the opposing trends don’t illustrate a crime spree. Right now, adult white men are the most likely to die gun-related deaths. Why? Because they are killing themselves. Suicide in among members of this group hit an all-time high in 2016. Now, pair that with this information: In a recent study titled Familicide: A Systematic Literature Review researchers found that there was an average of 23 familicide-suicide incidents per year in the United States between 2000 and 2009 and that the vast majority of the perpetrators were gun-wielding men.
“In the samples investigated in North America, 53% to 73% of the offenders used a firearm to kill their victims,” the authors wrote. “In the rest of the world, firearms were used in 12% to 28% of the cases.”
This isn’t simply academic. These numbers have names and faces. It takes almost zero effort to find a recent incident of a man taking his families life before his own. In July of this year, for example, 42-year-old Delaware resident Matthew Edwards shot and killed his wife Julie and their children, aged 3 to 6 years old, Brinley, Jacob and Paxton. Neighbors reported Edwards had been talking about losing his job and experiencing marital problems.
Placing the blame on mental health is often the go-to for gun rights advocates who want to deflect from an honest interrogation of firearms and their use to end human life. The argument is that if access to mental health were simply better (in some undefined yet significant way) people would be less likely to shoot other people with the guns they happen to own because they’d know that was a crazy thing to do. There’s the germ of truth here — access to mental health services decreases gun violence — but it’s an overly simplified story.
For mental health interventions to work, someone needs to seek them out. And men driven by shame to self-destruct are likely to feel a stigma about asking for help. Therapy and treatment also costs money and many men kill themselves because they don’t have money.
This is all to say that familicides are likely to trend up along with suicides, a story that is not being explicitly told in the press and, because familicide is not broadly studied, may well go unnoticed.
What should be done? More restrictive gun laws might help, but that’s an unlikely solution given the NRA’s apparent leverage over the Republican party. Besides which, other interventions have failed. The Obama era attempt to make an inability to manage one’s own social security funds a disqualification in gun background checks didn’t pan out. And gun violence — at least in schools — is not heavily correlated with local gun laws. If Americans want to get guns, they get guns.
That makes a mental health solution the only viable option. But without a universal Medicaid-style insurance or access solution, there are only private solutions (like Talkspace). These may help, but it is unlikely that they will help everyone. If suicide rates among white men remain high and these same men continue to kill themselves with guns, there will be profound collateral damage. Children will be killed.