Murder by Numbers

Listening to the latest media chatter, one could get the impression that murder in the US is historically bad and getting worse. As the Reverend Al Sharpton put it, "The time for their talk is over. Now's the time for action, and real change on gun control."

Actually, now would seem to be a very bad time for such action. The reason is simple: the murder rate is historically low and is already trending downward. In fact, the murder rate in 2011 was the lowest since 1961: 4.7 murders per 100,000 people. In only 5 years since 1910 has it been lower: 1955-59, when it was only slightly lower at 4.5 or 4.6.


Data source: The Federal Bureau of Investigation. For years 1900-1991: For years 1992-2011:

Today's murder rate is essentially at a low point of the past century. The murder rate in 2011 was lower than it was in 1911.

And the trend is downward. Whatever we've been doing over the last 20-30 years seems to be working, more or less. The murder rate has been cut by more than half since 1980: from 10.7 to 4.7.

We can only speculate on what might be behind this trend, but I will point out a few interesting facts.

• From 1980 to 2000 our prison population more than quadrupled.

• From the 1980s to 2000, the number of prisoner executions more than quadrupled.

• From 1986 to 2006, the number of states adopting "shall issue" Concealed Carry permits nearly quadrupled.

While the most recent murder rate is fairly low for the United States, we often hear that other countries like Australia, Japan and the UK have much lower murder rates. If we want to compare countries, we should not "cherry pick." Let's look at all countries. The United Nations collects such data. Out of 206 countries, the US ranks 103 - smack in the middle.

Data Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: (Rates are for most recent year, since 2000, of available data.)

You might guess that the Congo (30.8) or Uganda (36.3) would have higher murder rates than us. But would you have guessed Jamaica (40.9), Saint Lucia (25.2), Brazil (21.0), Greenland (19.2) and Costa Rica (10.0) do too?

Here is the list of European countries whose most recent murder rates exceeded the U.S.'s.

• Greenland (19.2)
• Russia (10.2)
• Moldova (7.5)
• Lithuania (6.6)
• Ukraine (5.2)
• Estonia (5.2)
• Belarus (4.9)

It is true that all countries in Southern and Western Europe had lower murder rates than the U.S. But it might be worthwhile to parse the U.S. number if we continue to make such comparisons.

In over 52% of the murders in the US in 2011 in which the race of the murderer was known, the murderer was black. Over half of the victims of murder were also black. But blacks are only 13.6% of the population. Put all that together, and the murder rate in the US for non-blacks was more like 2.6 per 100,000 in 2011.

As Peter Baldwin put it in his book, The Narcissism of Minor Differences, "Take out the black underclass from the statistics, and even American murder rates fall to European levels."

A rate of 2.6 would put us below the Southern European countries of Albania (4.0) and Montenegro (3.5), and in the neighborhood of the Western European countries of Liechtenstein (2.8) and Luxembourg (2.5).

The Government Accountability Office estimated that 25,064 criminal aliens (non-U.S. citizens) were arrested for homicide in the U.S. Compare that number to the total number of homicides in the U.S. in 2011: 14,612. The criminal aliens committed their murders over a number of years, but that is still a high percentage of all murders in the U.S. that are committed by non-citizens.

And let's not forget that we are the United States; there are 50 states. (U.S. rates are for 2011 unless otherwise stated. Foreign rates are most recent year available.)

• Idaho (2.3, was 1.4 in 2010)
• Finland (2.2)
• Oregon (2.1)
• Maine (2.0)
• Utah (1.9)
• Belgium (1.7)
• Canada (1.6)
• Iowa (1.5)
• Greece (1.5)
• Minnesota (1.4)
• New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island (1.3)
• UK and Portugal (1.2)
• Hawaii (1.2)
• France (1.1)
• New Hampshire (1.0 in 2010)

But what about guns? Does the US have a murder problem because of so many guns? Again, let's not cherry-pick; let's look at all other countries.


Data sources: UNODC and the Small Arms Survey

To the eyeball, it looks like a more heavily armed population goes hand-in-hand with less murder, as an average. The statistics bear that out: the correlation coefficient is negative, -0.23, and it is statistically significant.

You can look for various trends, but there is no evidence here that the availability of guns leads to more murders. Two of the most heavily armed countries, Finland and Switzerland, have murder rates of 2.2 and 0.7, among the lowest in the world. On the other hand, every country with a murder rate at least 5 times greater than the U.S.'s has at least 5 times fewer firearms per person than the U.S.

Yes, you can look for trends, but the Centers for Disease Control already did that for you. During 2000-02, a CDC task force "conducted a systematic review of scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of firearms laws in preventing violence, including violent crimes, suicide, and unintentional injury." Here was their conclusion.

"The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes."

In short, the Al Sharpton advice is exactly wrong: this is not the time, and gun control is not the action. To put it mildly, we have better things to worry about.

In my view, this whole issue is a distraction. The homicide rate in the U.S. is one of the few things that are on a good trend. Why are we even discussing something that is historically low and declining instead of our unsustainable debt which is historically high and climbing? It is another sign of our dysfunctional politics. We seem incapable of even recognizing our real problems, much less tackling them.

Randall Hoven can be followed on Twitter or


Data source: The Federal Bureau of Investigation. For years 1900-1991: For years 1992-2011:

If you experience technical problems, please write to