There’s been a lot of talk, during the election cycle and since, about homicide rates in the U.S. Some people claim they’re ballooning out of control. Others say that the number of homicides and other violent incidents are actually going down. Part of the problem is that we’re viewing these statistics incorrectly. The United States is such a large and diverse place that looking at rates across the board can be misleading. It’s much more telling to view them by smaller areas.
Per Capita Homicide Rate
A lot of people, when talking about the U.S. homicide rate, place it alongside those of other nations, to show how high ours is by comparison. In terms of total homicides, we rank 14th in the world, in between Venezuela and Uganda. However, our population is also much higher than either of those nations, so it stands to reason that we’d have more total homicides.
When you look at the per capita rate (i.e. the number of homicides per million people), our ranking drops down to #99. It’s still higher than most of Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand, but the problem is not as out of control as it may seem otherwise. But even these numbers can be misleading.
Metropolitan Statistical Areas
One of the problems with having such a large country is that the areas with higher crime rates bring up the average for everyone. Even when you look at the per capita rate, the number of murders in large cities, such as Chicago or New York, will be much higher than the rate for, say, Dubuque, Iowa. Yet they’re all averaged together when calculating the homicide statistics.
A much better way to look at these stats is by Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA). By viewing homicide rates for different areas and comparing them, we can see more clearly which areas are safer than others.
For example, around 2% of the U.S. population lives in areas with less than 1 homicide per 100,000 people. That’s comparable to the rate of New Zealand, which ranks #173 on the list of homicides per capita. A full 46% of the population lives in areas with fewer than 3 homicides per hundred thousand—a rate comparable to Liechtenstein, which is ranked #118. So while homicides in some areas are certainly bad, much of the nation is relatively safe, statistically.
Other Homicide Factors
Even in areas like Chicago, where the murder rate is notoriously high, you’re probably safer than you realize. When you think of going to these areas, you probably worry that you could be shot walking down the street. But this is incredibly unlikely.
Statistically, 79% of murders are committed by someone who lives in the same house as the victim, or nearby. Which means they’re killed by friends, family members, neighbors, or other people whom they know personally. These areas are not, as some have postulated, war zones where everyone is murdering everyone else and chaos reigns supreme.
Statistics tell us a story. They show us what the world is like, according to the numbers. The more numbers you look at, and the more you compare them, the more detailed the story will be. But if you don’t look at all the numbers available, or look at them incorrectly, then the story you get will be inaccurate. That’s why it’s important, especially when it comes to the homicide rate, and other such crime statistics, that we take the time to gather all the facts, rather than making assumptions based on incomplete data. When our safety and wellbeing are at stake, it’s essential that we get the whole story.