Homicide, Epidemiology of

Homicide, the killing of one human being by another human being, has always been a concern in human society. It is a major social problem in the United States, where violence is endemic. The homicide rate in the United States peaked in 1980 at 10.7 per 100,000 population, but declined by 1997 to 6.8 per 100,000, the lowest number since 1967 when the murder rate was 7 murders per 100,000 (Adler, Mueller, and Laufer 2001).

Because various nations differ in their definitions of homicide and the manner in which they gather data, comparisons are difficult—statistics will vary from one data-gathering source to another. In 1989, in a comparison of nineteen industrialized nations providing information to Interpol (the international police agency), the United States possessed the highest homicide rate in the world at 7.9 per 100,000. Neighboring Canada's rate was only 2.7 per 100,000. A more recent comparison of nineteen industrialized nations, published in 1997, indicated that the United States still had the highest murder rate in the world. In 1998, according to Henry Tischler, the number hovered at around 7.4 per 100,000, which was three to four times the rate for most European nations. Tischler noted that although "Russia and other former Eastern-bloc countries have experienced a great deal of social upheaval since the fall of communism, causing their homicide rates to increase dramatically ... these countries do not have rates that have been typical of the United States in the past 10 years" (Tischler 1998, p. 203).

Gender and Homicide

Richard Hernstein has noted that the more heinous the crime, the greater the disproportion between men and women. This certainly holds true for homicide. According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Justice, men committed 87.5 percent of murders in 1999. The ratio of male to female homicides was approximately nine to one. Almost three-fourths of male homicides and 80 percent of female homicides were perpetrated against men. Males were more likely to choose a gun as their weapon, but women preferred a cleaner means of killing, such as arson or poisoning (Fox and Levin 2001).

Age and Homicide

According to Jay Albanese, writing in 2001, 46 percent of violent crime arrests (including those for homicide) involved people under the age of twenty-five. Individuals aged eighteen to twenty-four were the most likely to be arrested. In 1997 Sue Titus Reid found that children between the ages of twelve and fifteen were the most frequent victims of violence, and the elderly were the least likely to be victimized. Department of Justice data for 1976 to 1999 showed that 63.7 percent of homicide offenders and 52.7 percent of victims were between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. Only 7.5 percent of homicide offenders and 14.9 percent of homicide victims were fifty years of age or older. Variables in the high rate of homicide for young people included an increase in gang activity and the availability of guns and drugs. Additionally, Larry Gaines, Michael Kaune, and Larry L. Miller contended that an "environment of violence . . . permeates the daily life of many of our nation's youths," and "child abuse, which is difficult to measure, but is believed to be widespread, can also teach a youth the values of violence, which may lead to delinquent or criminal activity" (Gaines, Kaune, and Miller 2001, p. 27).

Race and Homicide

While African Americans constitute only about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they are overrepresented in the homicide category for both offenders and victims. Department of Justice statistics delineated that African Americans were seven times more likely than whites to commit homicides and six times more likely than whites to be murdered in 1999. Most homicides are intraracial. In a 2001 publication, James Alan Fox and Jack Levin stated that 86 percent of white homicide victims were killed by whites and 94 percent of African Americans were murdered by members of their own race.

Stranger killing tends to be intraracial, with 68 percent of whites and 87 percent of African Americans killing strangers within their own race. Data for 1976 to 1999 showed that 42.4 percent of African Americans and 55.5 percent of white victims were in an intimate relationship with the offender at the time of their demise. The murder of intimates was also intraracial.

African Americans were much more likely than whites to be the victims of hate crimes. According to Albanese, "Hispanics constitute a small but growing segment of victims of serious crimes" (Albanese 2001, p. 63).

Guns and Homicide

Perhaps the principal reason for the high rate of homicide in the United States is the gun mentality of American citizens. Americans led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) argue that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives them the "right to bear arms" and that that right should never be taken away. Gerald Robin, writing in 1991, stated that approximately one in every four families owned a handgun and that the average number of firearms in gun-owning families was about 2.34. Data from 1999 showed that in a comparison with France, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Scotland, the Netherlands, and England/Wales, the United States had an average annual rate of 13.6 per 100,000 population for deaths from firearms. This was more than twice the rate for the second highest country, France, which had a rate of 6.2 per 100,000.

Social Class and Homicide

Since the early 1900s, with the exception of Edwin Sutherland's classic work on white-collar crime in the 1940s, criminologists and criminological theory have focused primarily on lower-class crime. Theories that the poor are more likely to commit a violent crime are supported by crime statistics. The highest crime rates are found in the low-income areas of the city. The National Crime Victimization Survey for 1997 showed that people in households with an income of less than $7,500 experienced significantly more violent crime than persons in households at any other income level. The survey also showed that the greater the income, the lower the violent crime rate. Gaines, Kaune, and Miller stated that "a rise in one percentage point in male unemployment appears to increase the violent crime rate by 9 percent" (Gaines, Kaune, and Miller 2001, p. 49).

Drugs, Alcohol, and Homicide

Drugs and alcohol are definitely related to homicide. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 1998 reported that 80 percent of prisoners in the United States were involved with alcohol or other drugs at the time of their crime. A study of murders in New York City discovered that more than half were drug related. Department of Justice statistics for 1997 showed that approximately 53 percent of state and federal prisoners incarcerated for murder were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their lethal act. Research performed by the Rand Corporation in 2001 found that most of the violent prisoners studied had extensive histories of heroin abuse, often in combination with alcohol and other drugs. Also in 2001, Kurt Finsterbusch found in a study of homicide offenders incarcerated in New York State correctional facilities that 31 percent reported being drunk at the time of their crime, and 19 percent believed that their homicide was related to their drinking. The National Council on Alcoholism reported in 1997 that approximately 64 percent of murders may be attributed to alcohol misuse. Joel Samaha stated, "about half of all offenders have used alcohol within 72 hours of committing a violent crime" (Samaha 2001, p. 43).

Geographic Region and Homicide

Regional differences are evident with regard to homicide. Statistics published in 2001 showed that states in the southern and western regions of the United States had higher homicide rates than those in the Midwest and Northeast. The highest rates were in the South (8 per 100,000), and the lowest were in the northeastern section of the country (4 per 100,000).

There are several possible explanations for the high rate of southern homicide. First, there is the contention that the hot climate is more conducive to angry responses, which then lead to lethal consequences. Gaines, Kaune, and Miller provided partial support for this argument when they stated that crime data "show higher rates of crime in warmer summer months than any other time of the year" (Gaines, Kaune, and Miller 2001, p. 48). Second, there is the argument that a regional subculture of violence can be found in the South. Third, the prejudice and discrimination once prevalent in the South may still be a contributing factor in racial tensions and violence. Fourth, Steven Barkan noted in 2001 that the South has a high rate of economic deprivation and inequality, which are variables in homicide. Finally, there is a gun mentality in the South not found in other parts of the country.

Urban Status and Homicide

As reported by Freda Adler, Gerhard Mueller, and William Laufer in 2001, the largest U.S. cities have the highest homicide rates, while the smallest have the lowest homicide rates. According to Michael Rand, for the period 1993 to 1996, urban residents had homicide rates significantly higher than suburban residents, who in turn had higher rates than rural residents. In 1997, however, metropolitan cities had a much higher rate of homicide than rural counties, but rural counties possessed a slightly higher homicide rate than small cities (i.e., suburban cities). According to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics published in 2001, the homicide rate was 7 per 100,000 residents in U.S. metropolitan areas and 16 to 18 per 100,000 in some of the largest cities. In rural areas, the rate was 5 per 100,000.

Because homicide rates in the United States are the highest of all Western nations, it is logical that American cities would have a higher homicide rate than comparable large cities in other parts of the world. For example, Barkan, in a 2001 publication, reported that New York City had a homicide rate five to six times as high as London, another city with a large population. One study indicated that 25 percent of Boston's youth homicides, gun assaults, and drug offenses occurred in an area encompassing less than 4 percent of the city.

See also: Homicide, Definitions and Classifications of ; Mass Killers ; Serial Killers ; Suicide Basics: Epidemiology


Adler, Freda, Gerhard O. W. Mueller, and William S. Laufer. Criminology, 4th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Albanese, Jay S. Criminal Justice: Brief Edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Barkan, Steven E. Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Cole, George F., and Christopher E. Smith. The American System of Criminal Justice, 9th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.

Finsterbusch, Kurt. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Social Issues, 11th edition. Guilford, CT: McGraw Hill/Dushkin, 2001.

Fox, James Alan, and Jack Levin. The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Gaines, Larry, Michael Kaune, and Larry L. Miller. Criminal Justice in Action: The Core. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001

Kastenbaum, Robert J. Death, Society, and Human Experience, 4th edition. New York: Merrill Publishing, 1991.

Kornblum, William, and Joseph Julian. Social Problems, 10th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Lattimore, Pamela K., and Cynthia A. Nahabedian. The Nature of Homicide: Trends and Changes. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.

Levin, Jack. "Hatred: Too Close for Comfort." In Jack Levin and James Alan Fox eds., Deadlines: Essays in Murder and Mayhem. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Rand, Michael. "Criminal Victimization, 1997: Changes, 1996–97, with Trends, 1993–97." In Steven H. Cooper ed., Criminology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Reid, Sue Titus. Crime and Criminology, 8th edition. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark, 1997.

Robin, Gerald D. Violent Crime and Gun Control. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing, 1991.

Samaha, Joel. Criminal Justice, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

Schmalleger, Frank. Criminal Justice Today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Tischler, Henry L. Introduction to Sociology, 6th edition. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Press, 1998.

Internet Resources

Fox, James Alan, and Marianne W. Zawitz. "Homicide Trends in the United States." In the Bureau of Justice Statistics [web site]. Available from www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/homtrnd.htm .


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