The U.S. murder rate is often regarded as one of our country’s vital signs: Are Americans more or less safe than last year, when it comes to their odds of meeting a violent end?
But misinformation abounds. Is the murder rate really “the highest it’s been in 45 years,” as claimed by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump? (No.) Is Chicago America’s murder capital? (Also no.)
Because the vast majority of American homicides are committed with guns, both the national murder rate and the more relevant citywide and neighborhood murder rates — about which, more below — frequently figure into our reporting at The Trace. In this guide, we’ve collected the most up-to-date statistics on murders in America, as well as the critical context that often gets missed.
Long-term murder rates are down, despite recent increases
The data is clear: America is a much less murderous place than it once was.
Following its peak in the early-’90s, the national murder rate has declined steadily. The rate for big American cities — those with populations greater than 250,000 — follows a similar pattern, though with more dramatic fluctuations.
Look closely at the above graphic, and you’ll see a more recent trend that has some crime analysts alarmed: Between 2014 and 2016, the murder rate ticked up. According to newly released FBI data, rates dropped slightly in 2017, to 5.3 murders per 100,000 people — a sign that the short-term increase may be over. The country’s overall murder rate still remains far below those recorded in the ’90s.
The upward trend in the national murder rate is attributed to sharp increases in crime in a handful of American cities. In Chicago, for example, the murder rate nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016. Milwaukee and Louisville, Kentucky, saw comparable spikes.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks murder rates through its annual Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which draws on data that cities and other jurisdictions send to the bureau. The 2017 report will not be public until the Fall of 2018.
But a paper published last September by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice estimates that America’s largest cities recorded significant decreases last year following their elevated 2016 numbers. Overall, Brennan projects that the national violent crime rate for 2017 will come in at the second-lowest level since 1990.
How U.S. cities stack up
There is no city more synonymous with violence in the United States than Chicago. The Reverend Michael Pfleger, a prominent anti-violence activist and pastor on the city’s South Side, has described his city to reporters as “the poster boy of violence in America.”
To be sure, Chicago has a high number of murders: the city often records the highest absolute total killings each year. But as The Trace has noted, the data tells us that Chicago’s murder rate is nowhere near the nation’s worst. On a per-capita basis — murders per 100,000 residents — the city regularly experiences fewer killings than places whose murder rates get far less national attention, like Kansas City, Missouri, or Cleveland.
“Because Chicago has so many people, it can get a murder every day, and that gets people’s attention,” John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham Law School, recently told The Trace. “When you focus on numbers, not rates, Chicago ends up looking worse because you forget just how big a city it is.”
Chicago’s murder rate becomes even more unexceptional for a large city when the category of homicides that inflates its level is factored out. When you look at murders by how they were committed, the data shows that Chicago has a much higher rate of gun homicides, specifically, than Los Angeles or New York. For non-gun homicides, the cities’ rates are effectively equal. It’s because Chicago has so many more fatal shootings, per capita, that it does not enjoy the same safety as those other metropolises.
Mass shootings, though comprising less than 2 percent of all gun deaths, can skew a local murder rate so drastically that some cities decline to include fatalities from gun rampages when reporting their annual numbers to the FBI. Las Vegas, for example, has decided to exclude victims of the 2017 Mandalay Bay massacre from the homicide counts that they provide to the FBI.
The city of Orlando reported the 49 victims of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting to the FBI but added a footnote: “The 2016 murder offenses include those victims of the Pulse Nightclub incident; therefore, figures are not comparable to previous years’ data.”
According to American Violence, a project which aggregates the latest available homicide figures from large U.S. cities, the majority of cities saw homicide rates fall in the first six months of 2018 compared with the same period last year.
An ignored crime metric: murder inequality
If some scholars of crime had their way, discussions of murder rates would focus not on cities, but on the few urban neighborhoods battling vastly disparate murder levels: Travel a few city blocks, and rates of violence can fluctuate dramatically.
The phenomenon is captured by the term “murder inequality,” a coinage of the young urbanologist Daniel Kay Hertz. Writing for The Trace, Hertz stressed that looking at smaller geographical areas paints a more accurate picture of the relative threat of violence that individual Americans face and can make prevention strategies more effective.
In 2016, five police districts overseeing only 8 percent of Chicago’s population recorded around 32 percent of its murders. Two Chicago neighborhoods, Burnside and Fuller Park, counted a rate of more than 100 killings per 100,000 people. People living in them were nine times more likely to be shot in their neighborhood than in the city’s safest quarters.
“Just like income, education and other metrics of social advantage, violent gun crime varies even more within American cities than between them,” Hertz wrote.
The problem of murder inequality is not unique to Chicago. Last year in St. Louis, most killings were concentrated in neighborhoods like Greater Ville and the adjacent JeffVanderLou, which sit just a few miles from the city’s downtown, and each recorded a murder rate of 162. The same disparities exist for gun violence overall. Forty percent of non-fatal shooting incidents in 2017 occurred in only 10 of St. Louis’s 88 neighborhoods, according to police data.
See how your city stacks up
Below, we’ve compiled historical murder rates for major American cities, using the figures they have provided to the FBI. You can sort the rankings by year, and search for your own city to see where it ranks.
Murder Rates of Major U.S. Cities
Murder rates — and especially the neighborhood-level rates that yield murder inequality — are one metric for understanding America’s gun violence crisis. But because homicides comprise only roughly a third of all gun deaths, it is important to know the data on gun suicides, which account for the other two-thirds firearms fatalities, and are rising in 20 states. It’s also valuable to look at how gun violence harms specific populations, like domestic abuse victims and children. For a single overview of the most salient statistics about gun violence — and potential interventions — please see this guide.