‘Family Annihilators’: When Conservative America’s Fetish for Guns and Patriarchy Turns Deadly

Every five days, a person murders his family. These killings are not random tragedies—they are political choices.

An attendee holds an M1A series rifle during the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston, Texas on May 28, 2022—days after the horrific massacre of children at a Texas elementary school. (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Jill.substack.com, a newsletter from journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic.

I’m not sure a more disturbing term exists than “family annihilator.” Every five days, according to an analysis by the Indianapolis Star, a person murders his family.

  • 94 percent of the time, the killer is a man.
  • 86 percent of the time, he uses a gun.
  • 84 percent of the time, his victim is a woman.

And, notably, these killings happen largely in the South and the Midwest: the conservative swaths of the U.S. where guns are broadly accessible, and where gender roles are more traditional.

The question of why men kill their families isn’t all that complicated. These men are often deep narcissists who demand subservience and control. But that sense of entitlement is not inborn; it’s cultural, and it comes from a society, and particular communities, that tell men it is their birthright to lead, to be in charge, to provide, and to enjoy the respect of women, children, and broader society.

Men who mistreat their partners and families are forgiven a lot, and yet they demand more. In many communities, the expectation that men display even a modicum of decency is lower than a dachshund’s belly—something we see in the aftermath of family annihilation murders. The Indianapolis Star looks at the Mumper family, killed by the family’s father, and quotes a niece as saying, “I like to think that he loved them. He just wasn’t the best at showing it.” 

Murdering your whole family is indeed a pretty bad way of showing it.

“I know husbands kill their wives,” she continued. “I know no marriage is perfect. But why would you kill your children? As a parent, I don’t understand that. I will never understand that.”  

When everyday misogyny is so engrained that “husbands kill their wives” is not a shocking statement but simply a part of your ‘normal’—a thing you inherently “know”—it’s really no wonder that husbands feel entitled to abuse and sometimes kill their wives.

Then there was the Utah man who killed his wife, his mother-in-law, his five children and himself, whose obituary nonetheless read, “Michael made it a point to spend quality time with each and every one of his children. Michael enjoyed making memories with the family.”

The obituary touted his time as an Eagle Scout, and his dedication to the Mormon church. It didn’t mention that the last memory his family had of him was when he murdered them all.

When everyday misogyny is so engrained that ‘husbands kill their wives’ is simply a part of your ‘normal’—a thing you inherently ‘know’—it’s really no wonder that husbands feel entitled to abuse and sometimes kill their wives.

Hundreds of people wear orange and march across Brooklyn Bridge in recognition of National Gun Violence Awareness Day on, June 3, 2023. (Selcuk Acar / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

All kinds of men abuse their partners and children: Religious men and atheists, conservatives and liberals, rich men and poor men. But we know that abusive behaviors are not simply scattered randomly across the population, and that “abuser” is not a solely inborn characteristic, something a man is destined to either be or not be. We know that particular life events and stressors can increase abuse, with financial stress toward the top of the list. We know that what one observed as a child, and how one learned (or didn’t learn) to regulate one’s emotions can shape how one treats a future family.

And we know that narcissism, entitlement, and control issues often manifest in abuse. From the Indy Star:

A distinct profile emerged from the IndyStar investigation and other research: The family annihilator’s violent actions are rooted in their failures, insecurities and inability to control their fate. Circumstances—impending divorce, financial difficulties, illness—have robbed them of the life they had imagined. So, they decide to take the lives of those closest to them.

The motivations, according to the Star: “suicide, immortality, control and revenge.”

There is a global connection between patriarchal views and domestic violence, and while not every domestic abuser is a right-wing lunatic, it’s not hard to see how a worldview in which men are entitled to respect, authority and control over their female partners and children would beget domestic violence. 

According to one gender-based violence expert:

“Men don’t abuse women because society tells them it’s OK. Men abuse women because society tells them they are entitled to be in control. In fact, society says that if they are not in control, they won’t succeed – they won’t get the girl, they won’t get the money, and they will be vulnerable to the violence and control of other men. It says that if they fail to assert themselves like ‘real men,’ they will end up poor and alone.

“But we don’t just see men being entitled to power over their partners; some women identify with this, too. That’s because ‘having power over’ is valued within patriarchy – much more for men than it is for women – but nevertheless, it is regarded generally as a sign of strength to claim power over others. To add more complication, in many perpetrators who have had trauma or attachment disruption in their childhoods, you get another layer of entitlement: As one perpetrator told me, ‘I never had any control over anything as a child, and I vowed that I would never let that happen to me again. I would always be in control.’

“Trauma-based entitlement is very common in people who are abusive – the notion that ‘I had to go through so much, so fuck you, you just have to deal with whatever I do to you.’ When that entitlement is thwarted, there is this notion of being defied, of being humiliated – of being shamed. This is what has been called ‘humiliated fury’ – when insecurity, toxic shame and entitlement combine. That is a very dangerous emotional state.

Our culture breeds male entitlement to power—to economic power, political power and domestic power. We see so much of this in conversations asking, “What’s the matter with men?”

Some men face the same very real problems some women face: racism, endemic inequality, financial insecurity.

But at the heart of what seems to be plaguing many American men is something less material: a sense of displacement, that they were born into male bodies and expected, as their birthright, authority over others and a wife who would take care of the home front and obedient kids and a job providing for a middle-class life and respect from others. Many seem to expect this to materialize regardless of whatever choices they make in their lives—these are not relationships to be cultivated or things to be earned, but benefits owed.

When they don’t materialize, there’s a broad sense of betrayal, and often an impulse to blame someone else: For white men, that might be job-stealing immigrants or affirmative action hires; for men more broadly, it’s often feminists and a society wherein changing gender roles have given women more freedom that many men feel has come at their expense.

It hasn’t—except insofar that women are no longer nearly as socially, culturally and financially required to tether themselves to a man. And some men find this, and the reality that their partners or wives have the right to leave them, to be a grave injustice.

It’s not hard to see how a worldview in which men are entitled to respect, authority and control over their female partners and children would beget domestic violence. … And then there are the guns.

This kind of entitlement is supercharged in conservative communities that enforce traditional gender roles, and the sense of humiliation that comes with perceived “emasculation” can be supercharged in return. Communities in which traditional marriage remains a chief aspiration may also see more women tying themselves to less-than-ideal men, and more men believing that marriage imbues them with vast rights over their wife’s agency, her body and her future.

And then there are the guns. The very presence of a handgun in the house makes a person seven times more likely to be killed. And men who are insecure about their masculinity, and men with more sexist beliefs, are more likely to be gun proponents and gun owners. No wonder we see these killings so much more often in conservative states, where guns are easy to get and there’s a higher concentration of sexist, insecure men who expect their wives to behave.

The U.S. is a global outlier when it comes to gun deaths. And we are a global outlier when it comes to family annihilations. There are violent, misogynist men everywhere. But their misogyny isn’t enabled and encouraged everywhere, as it is in much of the U.S. And in much of the world, violent, misogynist men cannot easily get their hands on deadly weapons. In the U.S., they can—and the Supreme Court may make that even easier.

Men who murder their families are not random bad guys who do the unthinkable. They are the logical outcome of patriarchal social and family norms, coupled with an out-of-control gun culture of paranoia and insecure masculinity. These killings are not random tragedies. They are political choices.

Up next:

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Jill Filipovic is a New York-based writer, lawyer and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. A weekly columnist for CNN and a 2019 New America Future of War fellow, she is also a former contributing opinion writer to The New York Times and a former columnist for The Guardian. She writes at jill.substack.com and holds writing workshops and retreats around the world.