Murder-Suicides Are an Urgent Domestic Violence and Gun Control Issue

The vast majority of murder-suicides involve a male perpetrator using a firearm, most frequently against an intimate partner.

Mother and social media influencer Theresa Cachuela was shot and killed by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide. (Instagram / @_bontiti_)

Theresa Cachuela, known as “Bunny Bontiti” to her more than 20,000 Instagram followers, was fatally shot on Dec. 22 in a murder-suicide committed by her husband, as her young daughter looked on, just days after a judge granted Cachuela a restraining order against him.

Cachuela is one of hundreds of murder-suicide victims each year, according to the eighth edition of “American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States,” released recently by the Violence Policy Center. As in prior editions, the study shows that the vast majority of these gruesome tragedies involve a male perpetrator using a firearm, most frequently against an intimate partner—making clear the importance of keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

Highlighting the connection between guns and domestic violence is crucial, with the Supreme Court currently considering the case of United States v. Rahimi, a Second Amendment challenge to the government’s right to ban gun permits for those subject to domestic violence restraining orders.

Murder-Suicides in the United States

In 2002, the Violence Policy Center began collecting and analyzing news reports of murder-suicides, events that involve a perpetrator committing one or more murders and then suicide shortly thereafter. While medical studies estimate that in the United States, between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths per year are the result of murder-suicides, the phenomenon receives little public attention.

The eighth edition of “American Roulette” analyzed data from the first half of 2021 and identified 258 murder-suicide events, with 588 victims (258 suicides and 330 homicides). The states with the most murder-suicides include Florida, Texas, Georgia, California and Missouri.

The analysis presents a disturbing picture and shows that murder-suicides are a serious domestic violence and gun control issue.

  • Ninety percent of all incidents were known to involve a firearm.
  • Sixty-two percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner. Of these, 95 percent were females killed by their male intimate partners, and 93 percent involved a gun.
  • Ninety-one percent of perpetrators were male.
  • Sixty-nine percent of homicide victims were female.
  • Fourteen percent of homicide victims were children and teens less than 18 years of age, and 66 children and teens less than 18 years of age were survivors who witnessed some aspect of the murder-suicide.
  • Eight of the murder-suicides were perpetrated by male “family annihilators,” murderers who kill their intimate partners, children and other family members before killing themselves.

[There are] the substantial dangers—especially to women and children—of allowing individuals with a known propensity for domestic violence to possess firearms.

The study shows that murder-suicide affects families, but can also involve friends, co-workers and strangers, and causes generational trauma for survivors. Because the weapon used is almost always a gun, and these events most frequently take place in the home between intimate partners, the report offers multiple legal and policy recommendations, including:

  • Passage of stronger domestic violence prevention legislation.
  • Restricting access to firearms where there is a history of domestic violence.
  • Aggressive enforcement of laws prohibiting individuals with domestic violence convictions or protective orders from purchasing or possessing a firearm.
  • Establishing a national database to track murder-suicides.

The report shows that the combination of domestic conflict and firearms is often lethal and dovetails with other empirical evidence, such as the finding that household guns increase five-fold the risk of death during domestic violence incidents.

The states with the most murder-suicides include Florida, Texas, Georgia, California and Missouri.

Second Amendment Challenge in Rahimi

Understanding the correlation between domestic violence and firearms is critical as the Supreme Court decides Rahimi, which challenges the constitutionality of U.S.C. §922(g)(8), a federal law passed in 1994 criminalizing the possession of firearms by individuals bound by domestic violence restraining orders. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in November, with a decision expected by June of this year.

Zackey Rahimi claims his Second Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested for possessing firearms while subject to a February 2020 protective order resulting from assaulting and threatening his former girlfriend. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit initially upheld the law, rejecting Rahimi’s challenge, but changed its opinion in March 2023, declaring the law unconstitutional and vacating Rahimi’s conviction after the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 landmark decision in June 2022 in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen.

The Troubling Aftermath of the Bruen Decision

The Bruen decision—called a “jurisprudential train wreck” by one commentator—established a new standard for all Second Amendment cases, which vastly expands the scope of the Second Amendment and has caused massive confusion as lower courts attempt to apply the new test.

In Bruen, the Supreme Court declared New York’s century-old handgun-licensing scheme unconstitutional because, as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, “the government must affirmatively prove that its firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition that delimits” the Second Amendment.

After Bruen, all gun control regulations are presumptively unconstitutional unless a judge determines a sufficient historical analog to the regulation in question, which requires judges to undertake complex and meticulous historical research. The Supreme Court did acknowledge, however, that “other cases implicating unprecedented societal concerns or dramatic technological changes may require a more nuanced approach,” but gave little guidance as to how to determine which cases fit that description or what that nuanced approach should be.   

In its revised Rahimi decision, the Court of Appeals used the new Bruen test to declare the law unconstitutional because the federal government could not point to a historical analog for the restriction.

The panel’s reversal was consistent with other post-Bruen cases. One of them is U.S. v. Perez-Gallen, a U.S. Fifth Circuit District Court case which found that since the historical record dating back to the 17th century did not contain evidence that the colonies considered domestic abusers a threat, the federal government’s disarmament of domestic abusers was unconstitutional. The judge determined that “until the mid-1970s, government intervention—much less removing an individual’s firearms—because of domestic violence practically did not exist” and, therefore, could not withstand the Bruen test.

The district court’s implementation of the Supreme Court’s “nuanced approach” did not provide much nuance or understanding of domestic violence, which may have prompted the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Rahimi case to rein in lower courts, especially the Fifth Circuit, which has used Bruen to strike down all manner of gun regulations, including prohibiting guns in theaters, airports, parks and zoos.

In arguing to uphold the ban in Rahimi, the Biden administration has emphasized that Bruen has led to “destabilizing consequences,” and that gun regulations should be upheld even if there is not an exact historical match for the law.

It is enough for the law to fit within enduring general principles, including a government tradition of disarming certain classes of dangerous individuals, such as those convicted of violent crimes. Relying on only a “history and tradition” test in Rahimi to strike down the law would ignore decades of evidence, including the findings in “American Roulette,” demonstrating the substantial dangers—especially to women and children—of allowing individuals with a known propensity for domestic violence to possess firearms.

The Supreme Court seemed skeptical of Rahimi’s position in oral arguments. But the fact that Rahimi would even have a justiciable challenge underscores how the Supreme Court’s modern reliance on the historical record—from a time when women were not considered legal persons, and husbands could legally beat their wives—jeopardizes women’s safety, equality and lives.

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Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that uses international law to advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights.