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Crime Facts and Fictions

Much of what we think we know is untrue.

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Burglar committing crime
Source: Public Domain

Many myths about crime in the U.S. are carelessly promoted by politicians and the news media. Fictions about murder, in particular, are frequently disseminated.

Fortunately, there is a scientifically compiled resource that effectively debunks these popular fictions. This resource is a set of national crime statistics called the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) which is compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

The FBI has been compiling crime statistics for more than eighty-five years. Prior to 1930, crime data in the U.S. were anecdotal and highly unreliable. There was a perceived need among senior law enforcement administrators and government officials for reliable nationwide crime data. In response to this need, the UCR Program was jointly conceived of by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

These two organizations worked together throughout the 1920s to create a uniform national set of crime statistics which would be reliable for analysis. In 1927, the IACP created the Committee on Uniform Crime Reporting to determine statistics for national comparisons. The committee determined that seven serious crimes were fundamental and vital to tracking and comparing crime rates over time: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, burglary, aggravated assault, larceny and motor vehicle theft (an eighth, arson, was added due to a congressional directive in 1979).

In 1930, the FBI was given responsibility for the UCR and tasked with collecting, publishing, and archiving statistics for the crimes listed above. In practice, local law enforcement agencies voluntarily submit their crime statistics to the FBI for inclusion in the UCR. According to the FBI, the UCR is a nationwide, cooperative statistical effort of nearly 18,000 city, university and college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies voluntarily reporting data on crimes brought to their attention.

National crime statistics are compiled into the UCR which is published annually by the FBI. The UCR is the leading source of crime data in the U.S. Information from the UCR is frequently cited by the news media when describing crime trends and the raw UCR data are frequently used by criminologists in their research on crime patterns.

Murder is the central focus of this discussion, so let’s examine it in more detail based on UCR data and findings. First, it is important to understand that the homicide category in the UCR consists of “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter.” This is defined as the willful—that is, nonnegligent and intentional or voluntary—killing of one human being by another. Some murders are accidental or involuntary and, although they are serious crimes, these unintentional killings are not the focus of our discussion here. The FBI has this to say about its classification of murder:

The classification of this offense is based solely on police investigation as opposed to the determination of a court, medical examiner, coroner, jury, or other judicial body. The UCR Program does not include the following situations in this offense classification: deaths caused by negligence, suicide, or accident; justifiable homicides; and attempts to murder or assaults to murder, which are scored as aggravated assaults.

For the purposes of compiling the UCR, The FBI has been defining murder and collecting data the same way since 1929. Therefore, we have a consistent and reliable source of information on willful killing that covers nearly one hundred years available to us to examine murder facts and fictions.

One of the great myths about murder is that the number of incidents is constantly on the rise in the U.S. That is simply not the case. Murder actually peaked in 1991 when there were 24,700 incidents and the rate was 9.7 per 100,000 persons. Since then, the murder rate has dropped substantially and steadily to historic lows. There were 17,284 murders in the U.S. in 2017, for example, and the rate was 5.3 per 100,000 persons, according to the data.

These statistics are very encouraging and they represent nearly fifty-year lows in both the number of incidents and the rate of murder in the U.S. That is, the homicide rate since 2000 has declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960s. This is great news that defies the popular mythology about murder perpetrated by the news media.

In a cautionary note, there have been increases in the number of homicide incidents in the last few years in major cities such as New York, Los Angles and Chicago. The increase in homicide is being attributed to increased gang-related violence and turf wars in major cities. Perhaps, too, the murder rate has simply bottomed out after plunging for more than twenty years.

Contrary to mythology, however, the homicide rate did not climb steadily in the U.S. until 1991 and then suddenly plunge. Instead, the murder rate vacillated greatly throughout the twentieth century. Interestingly, there is a relationship between the economy and murder that dates back to the first publication of the UCR. More specifically, there is an inverse relationship between the economy and murder.

That is, when the state of the economy is bad the murder rate tends to rise, and when the economy thrives the murder rate tends to drop. This relationship was manifested in dramatic peaks in the murder rate, and the rate of crime in general, which correlated with major economic downturns in the 1930s, 1970s and 1980s. Conversely, the murder rate plunged during the economic booms of the 1950s and late 1990s.

This is not to say that economic recession is the singular cause of murder but there is an interesting correlation between them, nonetheless. This is actually not surprising. Economic struggles lead to frustration, anger and strained relationships. Anger or rage is a leading motivation for murder.

Even after the dramatic decline since 1991, the U.S. still has a very high murder rate compared to other countries around the world. In fact, the U.S. murder rate is significantly higher than in other industrialized nations.

More specifically, the murder rate in the U.S. is at least four times greater than any of its closest allies such as Germany, Canada, England or France. Incredibly, the U.S. homicide rate is fifteen times higher than that of Japan, which has one of the lowest murder rates in the world.

The global discrepancy appears to be largely due to a much greater number of deaths due to firearms in the U.S. than in other nations. Even compared to other countries in which firearms are relatively common such as Canada, the homicide rate in the U.S. is much higher. This is most likely because the firearms used to kill others in the U.S. are typically handguns, whereas in other countries the guns are more likely to be rifles or shotguns.

Significantly, handguns are the leading method of homicide in the U.S., and contrary to National Rifle Association rhetoric, guns do kill. In particular, someone who is attacked by a perpetrator with a gun is at least eleven times more likely to die in the attack than if the perpetrator uses any other kind of weapon, including a knife.

It is important to know the facts about crime and murder. If you know the truth, then you can cut through the rhetoric and propaganda disseminated by politicians and the media. If you would like to learn more about the UCR data, click here.