Four Things That Put Cities’ Record-Low Murder Rates Into Context

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Murder rates dropped for another year in many of the largest cities, according to year-end police data on homicide investigations. For example, New York City saw a 20 percent drop from the year before, the lowest since police began keeping records. Chicago also had 18 percent fewer homicides, though the city still has the highest number nationally. Other cities experienced similar declines.

Put into context, these numbers are part of a more complicated picture:

1. It’s part of a longer trend: Overall, homicides have been on the decline for over a decade, even as population has grown. The rate has dropped by nearly half from 1992 to 2011, which is illustrated by a Bureau of Justice Statistics chart:



It’s unknown what exact combination of factors play a part in the homicide rate, but environmental causes like lead poisoning and pollution, economic issues, and access to guns each have a role.

2. The decline is uneven. Over the same period that murders dropped in large cities, they have risen in suburbs. Areas outside Houston, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta saw the biggest spike even as the cities saw less fatal crime. Suburban murders, from domestic violence to school shootings, now make up a quarter of all homicides, up from 20.7 percent in 2001. The homicide rate dropped similarly for both blacks and whites over a 10-year-period, though the rate remains highest for young male African-Americans.

According to the Wall Street Journal, criminologists have pinned the blame on “weaker and more resource-strapped law enforcement in some suburbs,” where budgets haven’t kept pace with population growth. “That, in turn, attracts criminals who focus on suburbs, because they are looking for easier places than relatively well-policed cities to commit crimes.”

3. It’s not an argument against gun violence prevention. Like the overall trend, the firearm homicide rate was down by nearly half in 2010 since 1993. However, federal data makes clear the vast majority of homicides still involve a firearm. They are also more common in homicides with multiple victims, responsible for 79 percent of these murders. The chart show how firearms eclipse other weapons:

firearms and homicides


Contrary to National Rifle Association arguments, the drop in homicides does not mean gun violence laws are ineffective or that guns prevent murders. Firearms were involved in nearly 32,000 deaths in one year of federal data. The vast majority were suicide, while 35 percent were homicides. Other examples of gun violence come from unintentional shootings, which killed 606 people in one year alone.

Explaining the factors behind homicide rates is more complicated than just guns. Still, empirical evidence shows that stronger gun regulations and fewer gun deaths go hand-in-hand. In Missouri, steps to weaken background checks correlated with a 25 percent spike in homicides.

4. Homicide totals are down, but mass shootings are more common.
Since 2000, mass shootings have spiked from five a year to 16 a year, according to a new report published in a law enforcement bulletin. A median two people were killed in each shooting. A mass shooting was largely responsible for Washington, D.C. having more murders in 2013 than in 2012. The Navy Yard mass shooting accounted for 12 of the 104 homicides. And gun violence still gripped Chicago, including days that saw dozens of people sho. These things could explain why a Pew poll found a majority of Americans actually think the rate has climbed.