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Trends in Homicide


Trends in Homicide Rates in the United States

Fulano de Tal

Rutgers University, Camden NJ 08102


There have been two sharp peaks in the homicide rate in the United States in the twentieth century, one during the period of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, the other during the more recent period of intensive drug prohibition. Increased use of drugs and alcohol probably contributes to homicide rates, but so do increased attempts to prohibit drug or alcohol use. Homicide rates also increase with unemployment, with indicators of social disorganization such as high divorce rates, and with the availability of guns.

Trends in Homicide in the United States


The trends in homicide rates in the United States are puzzling. The rate was only 1.2 per 100,000 people in 1900. In 1905, it started to increase, reaching a peak of 9.7 in 1933, the year that prohibition ended. It declined to modest levels in the 1940s and 1950s, then shot up in the 1970s, reaching a peak of 10.7 in 1980. Many observers (Bennett, DiIulio and Walters, 1996) expected it to continue to increase, but it turned down in the mid-1990s (Blumstein and Wallman, 2000), reaching a low of 6.1 in 2000. There was an increase to 7.1 in 2001, but this included deaths from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. These trends can be seen in Chart 1.

Chart 1
Homicide Rates in the United States in the Twentieth Century

Data from National Center for Health Statistics, updated to 2001 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics WEB site at:

Several different explanations have been offered of the trends in the homicide rate. In an alarmist book on “moral poverty” in America, Bennett, DiIullio and Walters (1996: 19-21) stated that “except for some advocates of drug legalization, no one seriously doubts that drug abuse kills and injures millions of Americans and their children each year, while contributing mightily to the nation’s drug problem.” They observed that number of young men in the population is increasing and that many of them “are likely to be raised in circumstances that put them at risk of becoming street predators.” They issued an ominous warning that “in short, America is a ticking crime bomb.” In fact, however, violent crime in America had already begun its sharp downturn when their book was published.

The sharp decline in crime in the 1990s is similar to the decline in the 1930s. Jeffrey Miron (1999, 2001), one of the advocates of drug legalization, argues that the increase in crime in the 1920s was due to the prohibition of alcohol. He theorizes that violent crime and homicide result when business people are unable to settle their conflicts through the judicial system because their commerce is illegal. In his view, the more the government spends on prohibition of drugs or alcohol, the greater the crime rate will be. This theory does not, however, explain the sharp decline in crime in the 1990s, since government efforts to suppress the drug trade did not abate.

Alfred Blumstein and his associates (Blumstein and Wallman, 2000; Blumstein and Rosenfeld, 1998) and their colleagues provide better information about the crime drop in the 1990s by disaggregating the trends. They show that the increase in violent crime and homicide in the 1980s and early 1990s was largely due to gun violence among young men in urban areas. Reynolds (1980) also shows that the increase in homicide is almost entirely due to an increase in use of firearms. The rapid increase in gun violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s was caused by the crack cocaine epidemic. This epidemic subsided, however, as residents of ghetto communities became disillusioned about crack cocaine. This disillusionment was a cultural change largely unrelated to law enforcement activities.


This paper uses a computer data set on historical trends in the United States that is part of the Microcase Curriculum Plan marketed by Wadsworth publishers. The data were collected from official sources. For this analysis, the trends in homicide were compared with trends in other variables.


Homicides are most frequently committed by young men. Trends in homicide may therefore be related to changes is the proportion of young men in the population. Chart 2 shows trends in the number of young people 15-19 and 20-24 in the general population. Although these are absolute numbers, not proportions, it is clear that there was a very sharp increase in the young adult population in the 1980s and early 1990s. this is because the baby boom generation was going through young adulthood at that time. This undoubtedly contributed to the increase in crime at that time. There was, however, no similar increase in this age group during the crime book in the 1920s.

Chart 2

The Number of People 15-19 and 20-24 in the U.S. Population

Homicide rates are higher among the black population than among the while population. There are, however, no changes in the percentage of black people in the population that correspond to the variations in the homicide rates in the twentieth century. The percentage black declined for the first few years of the century, due to increasing European immigration. It was at an all-time low during the crime boom of the 1920s. It then began long period of linear growth in 1950. The decline in 2000 may have to do with a change in measurement since the 2000 census was the first to allow people to indicate more than one racial group membership. The trends in the percent of the population that is black are shown in Chart 3

Chart 3

Percent Black in the U.S. Population

Unemployment may contribute to crime and to homicide when people who are unable to find legitimate jobs turn to criminal activities. This may be true even when high unemployment is limited to certain groups, such as black men. Chart 4 shows trends in unemployment among men and women and among black men and women. There was a sharp increase in unemployment, especially among black men and women, in the early 1980s, a time when crime was high. The crime drop in the 1990s corresponded to a period of declining unemployment. While the correlation is far from perfect, there does seem to be a correlation between homicide rates and unemployment rates.

Chart 4

Unemployment Rates by Gender and Race

The relationship between homicide rates and unemployment is supported by a correlation analysis, as shown in Table One. The table shows a high degree of correlation between the homicide rates among various groups. Data on male and female unemployment are available for 53 years, but data on unemployment among blacks are available only for 29 years. The correlations between unemployment rates and homicide rates range from .38 to .53 and are all statistically significant at the .01 level.

Table One

Correlation Between Homicide Rates and Unemployment Rates

Data from National Center for Health Statistics, updated to 2001 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics WEB site at:

Correlation Coefficients

PAIRWISE deletion (1-tailed test) Significance Levels: ** =.01, * =.05


UNEMP MALE 1.000 0.890 ** 0.975 ** 0.885 ** 0.458 **

(54) (54) (30) (30) (53)

UNEMP FEM 0.890 ** 1.000 0.833 ** 0.918 ** 0.532 **

(54) (54) (30) (30) (53)

UNEMP BK M 0.975 ** 0.833 ** 1.000 0.929 ** 0.380 *

(30) (30) (30) (30) (29)

UNEMP BL F 0.885 ** 0.918 ** 0.929 ** 1.000 0.492 **

(30) (30) (30) (30) (29)

HOMICIDE 0.458 ** 0.532 ** 0.380 * 0.492 ** 1.000

( 53) (53) (29) (29) (101)

If crime is a consequence of “moral poverty” it might be correlated with indicators such as the divorce rate. The crime boom of the 1920s, however, did not correlate with a high divorce rate. There was a remarkable spike in the divorce rate in the mid 1940s as many marriages were disrupted by World War II, and there was also a brief spike in the homicide rate at that time. Perhaps some men did not take the “Dear John” letters peacefully. There was a very sharp increase in the divorce rate beginning in the late 1960s when male/female relationships were stressed by the growth of women’s liberation. This was also a period of increasing crime and homicide rates.

Chart 5

Divorce Rates in the United States

Research suggests that increasing homicide rates are largely due to killings with firearms. As Chart 6 shows, the percentage of households in the United States reporting that they owned a gun declined in the 1900s as the crime rate declined.

Chart 6

Percent of Households Owning a Gun


The remarkable fluctuations in the American homicide rate in the twentieth century are difficult to correlate with other phenomena. While drugs and alcohol abuse undoubtedly contribute to homicide, efforts to suppress the drug or alcohol trade may make things even worse. Unemployment contributes to crime and homicide. Social disorganization of any kind, such as an increase in divorce rates, may cause stress that leads to increasing crime and homicide rates. The availability of guns also contributes to increased crime rates.


Blumstein, A. & Wallman, J. (2000). The Crime Drop in America. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Blumstein, Alfred & Rosenfeld, Richard. (1998). Explaining recent trends in homicide in the United States. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 88, 1175-1216.

Miron, J. (1999). “Violence and the U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol,” American Law and Economics Review 1-2, 78-114.

Miron, J. (2001). Alcohol prohibition. Retrieved October 12, 2005, from

Reynolds, F. (1980) Homicide trends in the United States. Demography17, 177-188.

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