Homicides have long produced fear and fascination, but recent years have brought additional public scrutiny to the way in which homicides are measured. On the national stage, President Trump has made inner-city killings a central component of his tough-on-crime rhetoric. In state-level political contests, savage debates have emerged around the presentation and manipulation of homicide statistics. And in the country's ongoing battles about gun control, advocates for change and opponents of restriction have each marshaled their own homicide statistics.
In this project, we set out to create a clear and unbiased account of homicides in America, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1999 to 2017, the most recent years on record. Our findings present the demographics of victims over time and the geographical distribution of killings nationwide. Additionally, our analysis reveals the most frequent homicide methods, both for specific segments of the population and throughout the entire country. Read on to understand the true nature of homicide in America and the troubling pattern of slayings in the 21st century.
Killings Across the Country
If we studied raw homicide totals in each state, our figures would reflect differences in population: States with the most residents, such as California and Texas, would naturally top our rankings. Accordingly, we analyzed a more balanced measure of killings occurring in each state – age-adjusted homicide rates per 100,000 people.
In this metric, homicide rates proved distressingly high in the heart of the South: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama each averaged over 12 homicides per 100,000 individuals. It's worth noting these states possess some of the nation's highest poverty rates, suggesting a connection between violence and financial insecurity. Indeed, many experts point out that violent crime and poverty are intertwined in a vicious circle. Crime grows in communities that lack economic opportunities, causing the remaining homeowners and businesses to flee.
Additionally, some states saw crime increase substantially during the period studied: From 2016 to 2017, Alaska sustained a 45 percent surge in homicides. Second-ranked Idaho saw a 43 percent increase from 2016 to 2017.
In terms of the tools with which homicides are committed, firearms are, by far, the most frequently used. From 1999 to 2017, guns accounted for over two-thirds of all homicides and 228,230 victims. These figures are particularly staggering when compared to equivalent statistics from other developed countries. The firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is roughly 15 times higher than in Germany, for example, a trend many experts attribute to the sheer number of guns Americans possess. Homicide may not represent the most pressing public health concern related to firearms, however: In recent years, firearm suicides have become more prevalent than homicides involving guns.
Other leading forms of homicides include assault with a sharp instrument and assault by some means unspecified in CDC records. Assault by hanging or suffocation resulted in somewhat fewer deaths proportionally, but experts assert this form of attack is frequently involved in domestic violence killings. Relatively few homicides (less than 1 percent) resulted from assault with a blunt object, and even fewer stemmed from assault by bodily force or substances. That's not to say human fists aren't thoroughly deadly. In some circumstances, single punches can result in fatal brain injuries.
Firearm Deaths Through the Years
Over the period studied, firearm homicides fluctuated to some extent. Yet, the nation always witnessed at least 10,800 gun homicides annually, and the most recent years in our data were by far the most deadly. In 2015, roughly 13,000 gun homicides occurred throughout the nation, an 18 percent increase over the year prior. In 2017, firearm homicides surged another .9 percent from 2016, reaching 14,562 in total. When contrasted to the 10,862 gun slayings that took place in 1999, that 2017 figure is 34 percent higher.
Researchers across the ideological spectrum have offered various explanations for this surge. Some attribute the violence to a breakdown in relations between police officers and the communities in which they operate: Police reduce their patrolling activities in response to community criticism of their conduct, and citizens who distrust law enforcement are more inclined to purchase guns to protect themselves. Another explanation might lie in relaxed regulation. Several states loosened their gun laws around the time of the increase in firearm homicides.
Age of the Departed
Victims killed by guns are disproportionately young: Nearly two-thirds are 34 years old or younger. Indeed, guns are now the third-leading cause of death among American children, and over 5,700 kids visit the emergency room each year due to injuries from firearms. Frequently, the public discourse around young people lost to gun violence centers around school shootings. While these incidents are overwhelmingly tragic, experts point out that many more minors are killed by guns in other circumstances every year, especially in communities in which gang violence is prevalent.
Deaths and Racial Disparities
When we segment homicide totals by the race or ethnicity of the victim, we found Caucasian and black or African-American citizens were killed in roughly equal numbers over the period studied. Asian and American Indian victims were far less numerous. Yet, the disproportionate impact of homicide on minority communities can only be understood in light of the racial composition of the entire population: 61 percent of Americans are white, whereas 12 percent are black. Six percent of Americans are Asian, and 1 percent are American Indian.
Proportionally, therefore, black Americans and American Indians are killed at substantially higher rates than their white counterparts. In 2017, for instance, homicide rates among black citizens were over six times higher than for white Americans. These disparities were sustained over the period studied, although the rate of homicides for black individuals did dip significantly after peaking in 2006. And by 2017, despite the homicide rate having decreased from prior levels across all racial groups, rates for black victims in 2017 remained steady and are nearly identical to their 2006 peak.
Homicide: Men vs. Women
Homicides of men and women present significant statistical differences, both in terms of quantity and the way in which they are typically committed. Most strikingly, victims are overwhelmingly male: Between 1999 and 2017, more than three-quarters of victims were men. Men are also far more likely to be perpetrators, with roughly 9 in 10 persons who commit homicides being male. Cumulatively, these data suggest killings frequently result from conflict and aggression between men. While a tendency toward violence was once considered a natural byproduct of testosterone, scholars now believe male aggression stems largely from cultural influences instead.
Certain kinds of killings were more likely to impact women, however: The vast majority of victims killed by bodily force during sexual assaults were female. Women were also more likely to be killed by means of hanging, strangulation, or suffocation. Additionally, experts note that a striking number of women die every year as a result of intimate partner violence, killed either by their lovers or people close to them. Relative to the 1999 figures, however, women were killed at lower rates in 2017.
In terms of timing, homicides occurred most often on the weekends. This pattern likely relates, at least partially, to the violence that often accompanies partying: Researchers suggest that a large portion of homicides are caused by excessive drinking, a reality that has led some cities to consider restricting alcohol access to drive down local homicide rates. Indeed, while many do not associate Sunday with heavy drinking or drug use, individuals may begin their partying the night before and commit their crimes in the early morning hours.
Certain months seemed connected to homicide spikes as well. July witnessed the greatest number of homicides during the time frame studied, and homicides generally seemed to decline with the arrival of cooler weather in fall and winter. Experts attribute this trend to the social patterns that correspond with high temperatures: People are more inclined to go outside during warm weather, increasing the odds of violent interactions. In some places, such as Chicago, however, homicides persist unabated in frigid weather.
National Crisis, Personal Precautions
Our data indicate certain segments of the population may be especially vulnerable to homicidal violence: In specific states, age ranges, and demographic groups, homicide rates remain troublingly high. Yet, no part of the American society is entirely insulated from homicide and its far-reaching ramifications. As members of torn families can attest, a single lost life can cause emotional reverberations across multiple generations. When we consider homicide statistics, we must not lose sight of the human pain underlying each recorded death.
It's tempting to regard killing as an unfortunate but inevitable feature of human society – a crime as old as the species itself. But each person can tangibly contribute to a safer country by observing two valuable rules. First, avoid escalating interpersonal conflict whenever possible: You never know when an altercation might turn tragically violent. Second, report incidents or threats of violence to law enforcement at the earliest opportunity. It's better to be safe than sorry when there are human lives at stake.
We collected data from wonder.cdc.gov. To use this particular database, we agreed to the following: "to only use this data for health statistical reporting and analysis; to not present or publish death counts of 9 or fewer (in figures, graphs, maps, tables, etc.); to make no attempt to learn the identity of any person or establishment included in the data; and to make no disclosure of other use of the identity of any person or establishment discovered inadvertently and advise the NCHS Confidentiality Officer of any such discovery."
In this study, we used the Multiple Cause of Death database to gain a better understanding of homicide rates from 1999 to 2017 using age-adjusted rates. We used variables such as state, race, sex, age, years, months, and days to grasp how homicide rates have changed between 1999 and 2017.
Fair Use Statement
We created this content to bring greater attention to homicides nationwide. If you share our work with your followers or audience, you'll be helping us reach that goal. Should you decide to share this project, we have two simple requests. First, please only use our content for noncommercial purposes. Second, kindly provide a link back to this page so that others can explore all our research.