In the next several posts, I will be discussing the homicide statistics and trends in the US. I want to begin with something unusual – a note about the data. There are two federal agencies that count homicides in the US: the FBI and the CDC. There are significant differences in their numbers. Since the CDC began publishing its database of fatality causes in 1999, the count has averaged 11% more than the FBI count. And the divergence has been increasing. For most of my discussion I am going to use the CDC data because their database provides more parameters to analysis characteristics of homicides. Also, it generally appears to me that the CDC data collection procedures are more comprehensive, and likely more reliable, than the FBI data. For example, the FBI compiles its statistics from law enforcement agencies, which are not required to report all data. The CDC compiles its numbers from death certificates received from the states, which are required to file those with the CDC. Recently, the FBI has struggled to get local law enforcement agencies to provide data. However, the FBI has published data as early as 1950, so I will reference some of those numbers for historical context and it provides some breakout of characteristics of homicides that the CDC does not. Just understand that when you see discrepancies between data for the same years, this is why. This is a 2014 discussion of the differences between the data collection of the two agencies.
In the last 20 years, nearly 400,000 Americans have died in a homicide. Homicides generally account for about .7% of all U.S. fatalities. In most years, homicides are a little under half the number of suicides.
Recent headlines have reported the unprecedented increase in homicides in 2020. Both the FBI and CDC data show about a 30% increase in the homicide rate (number of homicides/100,000 population), which is the largest percentage increase in at least the last 50 years, and maybe ever. However, the rate has been steadily increasing since 2014, when it had fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s. Still, the current homicide rate is well below the levels of the late 1970s through the mid-1990s.
Seventy-nine percent (79%) of homicides in 2020 were committed by firearms. Twenty years ago, only about two-thirds (66%) of homicides were committed with a firearm but that percentage has been steadily increasing.
The FBI data collects information on the type of firearm used in homicides, but the data is only partial because many law enforcement agencies did not report the information to the FBI. In a 2014-2017 survey, the FBI reported that 90% of the homicides for which it had data on the type of firearm used, the weapon was a handgun. Rifles and shotguns accounted for about 4-5% each.
Stabbing is the second most frequently used homicide instrumentality, accounting for about 10% of all homicides. Beating to death is third at about 5%. Poisoning, drowning, strangulation and pushing from a height account for less than 1% each.
Young men overwhelmingly account for most of the perpetrators and victims in homicides. FBI statistics1 show that 89% of all homicides are committed by a man and 62% by an individual between the ages of 10-29.
African Americans are grossly overrepresented as both perpetrators and victims of homicides. The same FBI database shows that African Americans committed 53% of all homicides and were victims in 50% of homicides, notwithstanding that African Americans make up only about 12% of the population. Whites (which in the FBI database include Hispanics) make up about 45% and 48% of the homicide perpetrators and victims, respectively, while representing about 72% of the population. The FBI data includes some very incomplete breakout on Hispanics. Taking it at face value and combining with its other data, it appears that Hispanics are perpetrators and victims in roughly the same proportion of their population.
I found FBI’s data parameters on the relationship of the perpetrator and the victim to be particularly fascinating. In only 22% of the cases, were the perpetrator and the victim strangers. The largest category was “acquaintance/friend” at 38%. The other large category was family members. The balance were circumstances where the perpetrator and victim knew each other in some manner but the FBI did not classify as a friend or acquaintance, e.g., employment settings.
Finally, the FBI broke down cases based on the circumstances that led to the homicides. I found their categories to be quite confusing with them likely overlapping. For example, it showed separate categories for “argument” and “brawls” due to alcohol or drugs. Also, the data was very incomplete with less than 15% of homicides being reported. So, with that very large caveat, the data showed that about 40% of the homicides were apparently the result of some kind of argument getting out of control, frequently fueled by alcohol or drugs. About 15% were committed in the process of committing robbery or a burglary and about 10% were identified as being gang related. I suspect that last number is way too low and that many of the homicides in the “argument” category had some gang component to them.
Next, I will be looking at the numbers on mass shootings.
Note 1 – I pulled the numbers for the characteristics of homicides from FBI’s Crime Explorer website. I used the dataset from 1985-2020. In many of these datasets, there is a large category of “unknown.” I am assuming that this represents reports for which the local law enforcement agency has not reported that particular data element. I have no way of judging whether these missing elements have some bias that skews the data.