art by Meghan Carlton

Homicide and Suicide: The Same Side of the Coin of Gun Violence

by Andrew Zale

The gun debate in America, which has boiled down to primarily two diametrically opposing arguments, has become a focus point of the 2016 presidential election. While conservatives argue that impeding the purchasing of guns does not properly reflect the Second Amendment and encourages crime, many liberals believe that gun control would prevent and reduce such criminal occurrences. However, the term “gun violence,” which manifests itself in the form of suicides and homicides, is a much more complicated and multi-faceted issue than we may be led to believe.

This topic is of severe importance because homicides and suicides are by far the most prevalent consequences of gun violence-- 96% of gun deaths in the United States are due to either suicide or homicide. The other 4% of deaths are the result of police shootings, accidents or unknown causes. Although it appears that homicides receive all of the media’s attention, suicides are 75% more common in the United States than homicides.

While homicides and suicides may appear different, with the former being an expression of outward anger and the latter a statement of inner angst, the pathophysiology of both have certain similar characteristics. Nicole Jackman, neurological researcher at Bryn Mawr University, explains, “Current research supports the notion that homicide and suicide are not unique behaviors characterized by distinctive brain anatomy and chemistry.”

Both instances are related to a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and the neurotransmitter serotonin. Often characterized as the executive part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex limits impulsivity while creating a sense of self-control. MRI scans have shown that homicidal brains have reduced activity in this brain region, which is believed to cause aggression. In suicidal brains, MRI scans likewise show a fewer number of neurons in the frontal cortex. Moreover, serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that regulates impulsive behaviors and is vital for self-control. In one study, violent prisoners showed low levels of serotonin. Similarly, 95 percent of suicide victims have demonstrated reduced levels of serotonin in their bodies.

Given what we know from a biological angle, homicidal and suicidal tendencies both manifest themselves through similar mechanisms in the human body. However, this by no means says that the sociopsychology of someone who is homicidal or suicidal is the same—if suicide and homicide were due to the same psychological cause, then one should expect the rates of each to be equal. There are sociological factors that are correlated with suicide and homicide that differentiate them.

Forensic scientist Dr. Robert Maris, who has studied suicides for nearly four decades, and developmental criminologist Dr. Manuel Eisner, who has studied homicides through the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, found very different results when studying the variations in homicide and suicide rates. Eisner linked social marginalization to an increased likelihood of being a perpetrator and victim in homicide. However, Maris found that women, and more specifically African American females, were more “immune” to suicide. In addition, Maris found that men are 4.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women. These findings represent a contrast between the effect of gender, a social construct, on suicide and homicide.

More surprising were the differences in how social interactions affect homicide and suicide. Strong socializing pressures and strict social rituals, according to Eisner, increase homicide rates. Completely on the opposite end of the spectrum, however, Maris concluded that losing those ties to social rituals and relationships increases suicide rates. Thus, there are multiple social factors, such as interactions and constructs, when combined with psychological differences that make understanding homicide and suicide so difficult. 

Despite the immense amount of findings on homicide and suicide, there is still a grave misunderstanding in the field. Forensic expert Radoslaw Panczak ended his 2013 overarching review on homicides and suicides by explaining, “[more] studies are needed to identify risk factors...and develop preventive strategies.” It is quite alarming that a research paper on gun violence ends with a plea for more research, as scientists cannot even make appropriate legislation recommendations. 

The reason for this shortcoming in requisite and output research is due to a lack of federal funding for mental health research. Between 2009 and 2011, while 17 states increased their funding for mental health programs, another 17 states cut their funding by over 10 percent, prompting the National Alliance on Mental Illness to declare the decreases “a national crisis.”

In response to these cuts, President Obama mandated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to complete a study on gun violence. However, the results of this singular report were incomplete and nonspecific. The findings included that there are “consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies” and “most felons report obtaining the majority of their firearms from informal sources.” However, findings as such do not get to the heart of the problem: the suicide and homicide epidemic in this country.

The most impactful policy change that the current bureaucratic institutions could make is a revision of the archaic goals of mental health research. Among its list of strategic adjectives, which are used to determine what projects should be funded, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that using statistics to determine mental health patterns is important. However, until the NIH admits that we need more than statistics and stops treating those who are homicidal and suicidal alike—as just numbers—our legislators cannot put into effect meaningful legislation.