A Statistical Picture of Murders in the United States, 1980–2008

A Statistical Picture of Murders in the United States, 1980–2008

An analysis of a massive database of hundreds of thousands of SHRs containing details about homicides committed over a span of 28 years established that the perpetrators and their victims were not a representative cross-section of all Americans. On the contrary, murderers and the people they killed were more likely to be male, young, and black, in terms of their demographic characteristics.

By Sex:

Males were disproportionately involved as the accused perpetrators (nearly 90 percent of all arrestees) and as their targets (over 75 percent of the deceased), although males comprise only about 50 percent of the population. Their rate of offending was about 15 for every 100,000 American boys and men, but for females it was less than 2 arrests per 100,000 girls and women per year. The victimization rate for males was close to 12 per 100,000, but for females it was much lower, close to 3 per 100,000 per year. Clearly, the typical murder was male-on-male.

Males mostly killed other males, but also killed females. Females rarely killed, and when they did, they usually killed males.

By Age:

Americans 18–24 years old made up nearly 11 percent of the population but accounted for more than one-third (38 percent) of all the accused killers and about one-quarter (24 percent) of the deceased. Eighteen- to 24-year olds had the highest rates of offending (29 per 100,000 per year) and of dying violently (17 per 100,000) of any age group. Twenty-five- to 34- year-olds suffered the second highest rate of involvement as offenders as well as victims. Nearly two-thirds of all victims and more than three-quarters of all arrestees were under 35 years of age. Therefore, the typical murder involved young adults killing other young adults.

By Race:

Americans of African descent were overrepresented as both victims and offenders. The victimization rate for blacks was 28 per 100,000 per year while for whites it was less than 5 per 100,000. The offending rate for blacks was over 34 per 100,000 while for whites it was less than 5. People identifying themselves as black comprised about 13 percent of the population but made up nearly half (47 percent) of all those who died violently and a little more than half (53 percent) who were arrested for manslaughter and murder. The typical murder was intraracial. Eighty-four percent of whites were slain by whites, and 93 percent of blacks were killed by blacks.

Victim–offender relationships:

Strangers were responsible for about one-fifth (22 percent) of all homicides in which the police could determine the victim– offender relationship.

Of the remaining 78 percent of killings carried out by nonstrangers, the victim was a spouse in 10 percent of the cases, another family member in 12 percent, and a boyfriend or girlfriend in 6 percent. The remaining half (49 percent) involved other types of acquaintances.


Arguments over all kinds of miscellaneous matters (other than issues surrounding street gangs and drugs, which are separate categories) made up the largest heading each year.

Homicides involving members of juvenile or adult gangs increased from 220 deaths (about 1 percent of all killings) in 1980 to 960 (about 6 percent) in 2008.

The majority of drug-related and gang-related killings took place in large cities.

SOURCE: Cooper and Smith, 2011.

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parties barely survived (a bullet missed its mark, a stabbing was not fatal, and a severe beating almost claimed a life). To put it differently, homicides are aggravated assaults in which victims do not recover from the wounds inflicted by their adversaries. With some bad luck or poor timing or ineffective medical care, an aggravated assault easily could wind up as a murder. Conversely, with good fortune, a tragedy might be averted by ambulance crews, paramedics, and hospital emergency room personnel, and a vicious act of violence that would have added to the body count remains a near death experience and is officially recorded as an aggravated assault.

Whether a victim of an aggravated assault lives or dies depends on several factors, including the weapon used, the severity of the wound, the injured party’s preexisting health condition, and the quality of medi- cal care received. According to a nationwide study that analyzed the caliber of various trauma care systems in selected counties across the country, a continuous drop in the lethality of assaults since 1960 can be primarily attributed to advances in emergency medicine (Harris, Thomas, Fischer, and Hirsch, 2002). The policy impli- cation is that the most important way to drive the murder rate down is to help critically wounded people stay alive by having competent ER doctors, nurses, and EMTs on call, ready to spring into action.

Both the UCR and the NCVS keep records of the annual number of aggravated assaults. Because two sources of official data can be tapped, a graph depicting changes over time in the rates of assaults with a deadly weapon or serious attacks can have two trend lines: one according to the UCR and the other according to the NCVS. The graph shown in Figure 4.2 displays the estimated rates for aggra- vated assaults committed across the United States from 1973 to 2013.

The NCVS trend line shows that close calls and near death experiences of people shot or stabbed declined slightly in frequency from the early 1970s until the early 1990s. Then the NCVS was rede- signed; the rate of aggravated assaults jumped in part because of the new measurement methods. However, by the end of the 1990s and for several years into the new century, a dramatic improvement in the level of serious interpersonal violence became

evident from NCVS estimates. Between 1993 (when the survey was redesigned and the rate hit a peak) and 2009, aggravated assaults disclosed to NCVS inter- viewers plummeted about 60 percent. By 2013, the rate had leveled off a bit above its lowest point in 40 years, at a little less than 4 persons per 1,000, way down from its peak in the early 1990s at 12 per 1,000.

UCR data shows a somewhat different pattern up to the early 1990s. After years of rising numbers of reports about serious attacks, complaints to the police about felonious assaults peaked in 1993 at about 430 per 100,000 people. From that high point, the level of violence subsided substantially during the second half of the 1990s and continued to diminish gradually through the twenty-first cen- tury, which is the same downward drift indicated by the NCVS line on the graph. The UCR rates combining shootings, stabbings, and other felonious assaults in 2013 were way down at about 230 per 100,000. But unlike the NCVS data points, they still had not quite fallen to their lowest levels in 40 years.

But the good news about this very positive trend must be tempered by a recognition that a growing number of totally innocent persons are sustaining aggravated assaults from gun violence that comes out of the blue.

During 2013, President Obama signed into law the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act. It authorized the U.S. Department of Justice to look into attempted mass killings in places of public use in order to provide federal, state, and local law enforce- ment agencies with data that will help them to better understand how to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from these violent outbursts. The FBI began in 2014 to report about the casualties of “active shooter” incidents, in which an offender attempts to kill people in a confined and populated area such as a school, workplace, shopping center, house of worship, transportation hub, or some other gathering place like a movie theater. The monitoring system does not count all mass killings (of three or more persons) or all mass shootings (for example, gang fights and turf battles between rival drug dealing crews are excluded). It focused on 160 active shooter incidents that broke out between


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2000 and 2013. The gunmen collectively inflicted 1,043 casualties on the general public, murdering 486 people and wounding 557. The median number of people slain per incident was 2, with another 2 injured. During the first seven years from 2000 to 2006, an average of around six incidents broke out each year. During the next seven-year interval up to 2013, more than 16 outbreaks took place annually; so the trend, unfortunately, is upward. The gunfire erupted in 40 of the 50 states, and 60 percent of the attacks were over before the local police could arrive to save lives. Most of the shootings lasted five min- utes or less. Even when the police arrived at the scene in time to intervene, the victims still had to make desperate life-and-death decisions. The worst bloodshed took place at an elementary school, a col- lege campus, an army base, and a movie theater. The year with the highest number of casualties (a total of 90 murdered and 118 victims of aggravated assaults) was 2012; during 2000, only seven people were killed or injured in these kinds of armed attacks.

Ten percent of the shooters went after women with whom they had or formerly had a romantic relation- ship. In 12 of these 16 incidents, these women were killed; an additional 42 innocent onlookers were murdered, and another 28 were wounded. In 13 per- cent of all the incidents (21 of 160), the gunfire stopped after unarmed bystanders and victims coura- geously, safely, and successfully restrained the shooter. The FBI concluded that the study supports the impor- tance of training ordinary citizens (includingmembers of the college campus community) as well as law enforcement officers by holding what-to-do-if exer- cises (FBI, 2014c).

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