Murder is nowhere near as common as you would think from reading newspapers and watching TV news. It is still a significant risk for some groups of people and shocking in any community.
This page takes a look at some of the latest statistics from the US Government which give some surprising insights into the circumstances of murder. There is also a glance at the rest of the world and the murder hotspots,
A UN report published in 2010 ** estimates that some 490,000 met a violent end for the latest available data.
The lowest global homicide rates were found in Western Europe, Southern Europe, Oceania, Eastern Asia and Northern Europe. The highest rates are found in South Africa and Central and South America.
The US is roughly in the middle of the world murder stats per head of population.
- Deaths worldwide from traffic accidents: appox 800.000
- Smoking related deaths worldwide: 5 million
Motives for Murder
- It is well known that most people who are murdered knew their killer. Random killings of strangers are rare. Sniper attacks, for example, grab the headlines but crime stats show only a few victims each year (see tables below).
- The motives of serial killers are extremely difficult to unravel. Fortunately, serial killers are becoming much rarer since numbers peaked in the 1980s with 382 individuals in that ten year period. In the first decade of this century the figure fell to 83.*
- Most often, the killer is involved emotionally with their victim. FBI figures suggest around 14% of murders are committed by a family member, 30% by a friend or other acquaintance and only 12% by strangers. In around 40% of cases the police never establish a relationship (probably because they never catch the perpetrator).
- A significant number of murders are committed in the course of crimes, especially robbery. U.S. Census Bureau figures show around 2500 murders of this kind every year
- Some murders are related to matters of respect. Someone feels slighted or humiliated and revenges themselves. This is commonplace in cultures where saving face is essential.
- A surprisingly small number of murders are related to sexual jealousy. 'Romantic triangles' were behind only 89 murders that were detected in 2009.
- Drink induced murders are also more rare than might be expected with 117 reported for the same year.
- In some cases cultures of murder develop. In the US, tit for tat killings between street gangs occur all too often
- In some parts of the world, civil disorder and social breakdown produce horrendous murder rates. These can spill over into the US in the form of criminal gangs who will resort to murder
Murders Associated with Other Crimes in the US
Motor vehicle theft
Other sex offenses
Narcotic drug laws
Circumstances of Murders not Associated with other Crimes
Child killed by babysitter
Brawl due to influence of alcohol
Brawl due to influence of narcotics
Argument over property or money
Juvenile gang killings
Unknown . . . . .
Why Motives are So Hard to Ascribe
The biggest single group in the table above is the 3360 murders related to arguments that do not fit into the commonly thought of patterns. These were not arguments over money or infidelity. They were not alcohol fueled.
Are these the arguments about nothing special that just happened to take a chronically bad relationship to a point of violence? Are they arguments that would seem trivial to outsiders that finally drove a dangerous individual to commit a murder? Or are there certain trigger points, certain sensitive issues, that will drive many people to murder that are not well understood?
The section, below, entitled 'Meeting, or Knowing, the Wrong Person' looks at studies suggesting some individuals are far more likely to kill than others.
People most at Risk in America
- African Americans are far more likely to be murdered than Caucasians
- Men are nearly four times as likely to be murdered as women
- The age group at highest risk is 17 to 34
91.9 percent of black victims were murdered by black offenders. 82.5 percent of white victims were murdered by white offenders.
The tables below show FBI data from 2007.
Victims by Race and Gender
Victims by Age
Infant (under 1)
1 to 4
5 to 8
9 to 12
13 to 16
17 to 19
20 to 24
25 to 29
30 to 34
35 to 39
40 to 44
45 to 49
50 to 54
55 to 59
60 to 64
65 to 69
70 to 74
75 and over
Meeting, or Knowing, the Wrong Person
Sometimes people are murdered because they meet the wrong kind of person at the wrong moment, if recent studies in genetics are to be believed.
Behavioral genomics is the science that looks at how genes affect the way people behave. One area that is being actively studied is the connection between a particular gene called the MAOA gene and violent behavior.
When the MAOA gene is shorter than normal it seems to function less well in producing the enzymes that calm aggression. People with the gene variant are much more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior patterns and are also much more likely to become a murderer.
The short version of the MAOA gene is sometimes called the 'warrior gene'.
Studies have further suggested that upbringing determines how much influence the warrior gene has. Individuals with the short gene will only become unusually aggressive if they have suffered abusive, poor quality home environments as children.
Given that most victims know their killers, it is those individuals you know well but who are also disposed to violence who pose the greatest threat.
Bad Economy means More Murders
Sudden dips in the economy can drive up homicide rates.In 2008-2009 there was an upsurge in murder in many countries around the world **.
Some of the extra murders are crime related. Some are the result of greater stress on individuals and families.
Country Development and Murder Rate
Very unequal societies have higher murder rates than more equal ones. Countries in the throes of development suffer very large discrepancies in income and opportunity. As countries become more developed and good incomes are more available so murder rates tend to fall according to the UN report cited at the foot of the page.
Sentences for Murder
In the US first degree murder means life in prison (without the possibility of parole in most states) or capital punishment.
Recently, US Judges have been placing increasing emphasis on mitigating evidence (evidence that suggests that the murderer deserves some clemency) when considering whether to impose the death sentence.
In the UK: Life imprisonment is a mandatory sentence since the death penalty was abolished in 1965. Life imprisonment rarely means what is it says, though. Parole is the norm. The average prisoner sentenced to life spends 14 years behind bars.
Data on Homicides in the US
The FBI offer many different breakdowns on homicide statistics through his page:
Serial Killer Reports
FBI report on how law enforcement approaches the various problems of catching serial killers. It also debunks many myths around the nature of the killers: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder
Murder Stats Worldwide
**This United Nations study offers facts by the barrel:
McKenna Meyers on December 15, 2015:
That's an eye-catching title, Will. There are so many real-life crime shows here in the US that we get the wrong idea -- that sensationalistic murders (love triangles, patricide, matricide, serial) are more common than they truly are. We rarely hear about black on black killings, juvenile gang deaths, etc. although they're a big problem (too complicated, too controversial, not juicy enough).
cosmomed from Sarawak. Malaysia on May 11, 2013:
Most murders are committed by the people whom they know. :-(
Dannail on February 19, 2012:
I have researched this and in Europe the only measure premeditated murder as a murder, the other deaths are measured as manslaughter.
In the US of A they measure premeditated, first degree, second degree murder(non premeditated or planned but a death occurred) , felony murder ( someone is killed in the commission of a felony by an individual not committing the crime, as a store owner, any other individual involved in the crime has committed felony murder) and non negnegligant homicide, those killed in a "heat of passion" as you come home and find your husband in bed with the neighbor and you kill them both, also murder suicide whereas you kill some one then you kill your self, both count as murder. If you only use premeditated, deliberit with malice, then the rate per100,000 is 60% less. In the year 2009, the murder rate was 2.05 compared to the 5.0 as published by the FBI. Therefore when compared to Europe, yes the US of A was higher than most of Europe but about equall to Belgium.
Paul Goodman from Florida USA on February 09, 2012:
Interesting read and voted up! Attitudes towards crime and punishment are quite different in the USA to Europe, as you point out.
Will Apse (author) on January 31, 2012:
There are fewer murders in the UK than the US but twice as many assaults are reported (according to stats from Nationmaster.com). In fact, the UK is way up the top of the list on the assaults front.
That shouldn't surprise anyone who has been out and about on a Saturday night in any average sized town in the UK.
Burglary rates are also similar.
barry1001 from North Wales on January 31, 2012:
Very interesting. Thankfully here in Britain we don't have the same crime rate, but I guess the motives are always the same the world over.
Will Apse (author) on January 23, 2012:
You are right about the juvenile gang murder figures being horrifying. I think if you live in an area that is effected it must be a nightmare.
Luckily, it is far away stuff for most people (though that is no reason for complacency).
L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on January 23, 2012:
You've provided lots of good statistics and insight into those statistics. For me, the most surprising and alarming stats are the number of murders among juvenile gang members.