The United States has seen about a generation’s worth of declines in the rate at which violent crimes are committed in this country. Between 1999 and 2018, the overall violent crime rate fell by nearly 30%, according to newly published FBI data.
Similarly, the homicide rate has tumbled in that same time frame, falling from 5.7 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 5 per 100,000 people in 2018. But while murder may be less common on the national level than it was 20 years ago, several states and major cities have homicide rates that definitively eclipse that of the entire U.S., and some areas have seen murder rates climb in recent years.
Though it’s by far the least common of all major crimes for which the FBI collects data, murder nonetheless remains a perceived (or real) threat for millions of Americans. In fact, according to a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly 1 in 5 Americans said they frequently or occasionally worry about being murdered.
So how grounded in reality are those concerns? It’s true that murder rates have fallen in recent years, but the answer to that question depends largely on where you live. Digging into the FBI’s most recent publication on American crime can help us understand the risk across the country.
Murder in the U.S.: The National Picture
As we already noted, the American murder rate is lower today than it was two decades ago. But the rate is not at its lowest point in history, and recent years have seen major variations.
Today’s murder rate stands barely below the rate the nation recorded in 1960, the earliest year for which the FBI has data. However, this still represents a decline of more than 50% from the peak in 1980.
How does a murder rate of 5 per 100,000 people position the United States among the international community? Among the nearly 100 countries with a recently reported murder rate (2017 or more recent), the U.S. ranks 34th. But among the 17 high-income countries with recent data, the U.S. rate is among the highest, far higher than many of the nations considered peers of the United States
Still, murder remains the least common of all major crime categories reported by the FBI — by a huge margin. Larceny-theft is the most common crime overall, and aggravated assault is the most common among violent crimes.
Nearly 3 in 4 murders involved the use of a firearm in 2018, by far the most common type of weapon used to commit a murder.
Men were far more likely in 2018 to be victims of murder than women: 77.3% of murder victims whose gender was known were men, while 22.5% were women. Black people accounted for about 52% of murder victims, while whites accounted for about 43%, and people between the ages of 20 and 39 made up more than half of all murder victims.
Only about 20% of murders in which the relationship between the killer and the victim was known involved a suspect who was a stranger, but in about half of all murders, the relationship between the victim and the killer wasn’t known or wasn’t reported by the FBI. More than 1 in 3 victims were acquaintances of their killers, while wives and girlfriends accounted for nearly 15% combined.
Murder in the States
In the majority of states, murder is less common than at the national level, but several states have murder rates that are considerably higher than the nation’s overall rate — in one case by more than double. Note that we have excluded Washington, D.C., from the state-level analysis because for statistics like crime data, the district is more comparable to a city. The district proper had a murder rate of nearly 23 per 100,000 in 2018, but the broader metro area had a far lower rate.
Five of the top 10 states are in the South, while three are in the Midwest and two are in the West. Conversely, five of the bottom 10 states are in the Northeast and three are in the Midwest.
The South has the highest average murder rate among the four major regions of the country, while the Northeast has the lowest.
Just under half of the states have seen their murder rates fall over the past 10 years, with an average decline of about 17% during that time. But a handful of states have seen murder become far more common over the past decade, with an average increase of 29%.
Recent trends show about half of the states have seen murder rates fall, but what about some longer views? All but three states have lower rates today than they did in 1980, but just under half can say the same when looking at the oldest data the FBI has on record.
In addition to major variations when it comes to how common murder is in each state, different areas of the country also vary by the types of weapons that are most often used. Remember that about 72% of murders nationally involved the use of a firearm; such weapons range from about 30% of murders in Vermont to 100% in Alabama. At the same time, knives and other cutting instruments were used in about 11% of all murders in the U.S. in 2018, but they accounted for 31% of South Dakota’s murders.
Murder in the Cities
Murder is more common in cities with populations between 250,000 and 1 million than in other American communities, and murder rates vary dramatically depending on the city and metro area in question.
Among the 300-plus largest cities and metro areas for which the FBI published 2018 data, the murder rate in Pine Bluff, Arkansas was the highest, 22.3 per 100,000, which is more than quadruple the overall U.S. rate and triple the rate of Arkansas as a whole.
More than 200 of the cities and metro areas for which the FBI published data had lower rates than the U.S. overall, and several had either no murders or rates so low they couldn’t be effectively calculated.
A majority of cities have seen murder rates climb over the past decade, and for many, rates have gone up quite dramatically. Among the 250+ cities with statistically significant murder rates for 2018 (1.5 per 100,000 or higher) that also had published rates for 2009, the murder rate in the Kennewick-Richland, Washington metro area climbed the highest — an increase of more than 800%.
Some cities have made major strides in combating murder rates, and for the cities that saw their rates drop, the average decline was more than 25%.
The average American is much more likely to be the victim of a theft or even robbery than to become the victim of a homicide, and the American murder rate isn’t too far off from the lowest rate on record. Still, as we can clearly see, the likelihood of becoming a murder statistic depends to a major degree on where you live.
About This Story
Our analysis and data from the FBI both use the term murder to refer to all cases of intentional homicide, which includes murder and non-negligent manslaughter.
All of the data relating to rates of murder and other crimes in the U.S. came from the annual FBI publication Crime in the U.S. Our analysis covered data primarily from 2018 and 2009, but we needed to consult reports for other years for information for some cities, as not every city had available data for the 10-year period in question. These substitutions were not statistically significant.
To compare today’s murder rate to historic rates, we used the custom table tool maintained by the FBI. You can access it and build your own tables here.
Data for homicide rates from other countries came from information published by the World Bank.
Fair Use Statement
Though it’s just one of a limitless number of factors to consider, understanding how common murder is in your community is a big part of feeling safe where you live. If you wish to share any of the data, analysis or images on this page, feel free to do so for any noncommercial uses. Folks who do share are encouraged to include a link to the URL of this page.