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Murder Isn't a Nationwide Problem

May 3, 2017, at Real Clear Policy

By John R. Lott, Jr.


The vast majority of murders in the United States occur in just a tiny percentage of counties. In fact, the country can be divided up into three types of places: those where there are no murders; those where there are a few murders; and those where murders are very common. 

In 2014, the most recent year that a county level breakdown is available, 54 percent of counties (with 11 percent of the population) had no murders. 69 percent of counties had no more than one murder, and about 20 percent of the population and only 4 percent of all murders in the country.

The worst 1 percent of counties have 19 percent of the population and 37 percent of the murders in 2014. The worst 2 percent of counties contain 47 percent of the population and accounted for 51 percent of the murders. 68 percent of the murders occurred in only 5 percent of counties.

Perhaps surprisingly, murders used to be even more concentrated. From 1977 to 2000, on average 73 percent of counties in any given year had zero murders. This change may be a result of the opioid epidemic’s spread to more rural areas. But no one has yet shown clearly what has caused this change.

Breaking down the most dangerous counties (see Figure 2) shows that over half the murders occurred in just 2 percent of the counties and 37 percent in the worst 1 percent of the counties.

Figure 1 illustrates how few counties have significant murder rates. Figure 3 further illustrates the same thing from a cumulative perspective: 54 percent of counties had zero murders; 69 percent had at most one murder; 76 percent had at most two murders, and so on. To put it differently, only the top 4 percent of counties had 16 or more murders. 

If the 1 percent of counties with the worst murder rates somehow were to become one separate country, the murder rate in the rest of the U.S. would have been only 3.4 in 2014. Removing the worst 2 percent or 5 percent would have reduced the rate to just 3.06 or 2.56 per 100,000 people, respectively.

When you look at individual counties with high murder rates, you find large areas with few murders. Consider Los Angeles County, with 526 murders in 2014, the most of any county in the US. There are virtually no murders in the northwestern part of the county, with only one murder each in Beverly Hills, Hawthorne, and Van Nuys. 

The map below shows the distribution of murders in Indianapolis, which had 139 murders in 2014. Although the city extends well beyond the 465 Highway that encircles downtown Indianapolis, there are only four murders outside that loop. The northern half of the city within 465 also has relatively few murders.

Similarly, Washington, D.C., has large areas without murders. 14th Street NW divides the eastern and western parts of the district, with murders overwhelmingly limited to the eastern half. The area around the capitol is also extremely safe.

According to a 2013 PEW Research Center survey, the household gun ownership rate in rural areas was 111 percent greater than in urban areas. Suburban households are 28.6 percent more likely to own guns than urban households. Despite lower gun ownership, urban areas experience much higher murder rates. One should not put much weight on this purely “cross-sectional” evidence at one point in time. But it is hard to overlook the fact that so much of the country has both very high gun ownership rates and few, if any, murders.

To put it simply, murder isn’t a nationwide problem; it’s a problem in a very small set of urban areas.

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