The US has more guns per capita than anywhere else in the world. We have massive organized crime, drug and human trafficking, and ever-looming terrorist threats. We have one of the most organized and efficient police forces on Earth. We also have a never-ending news cycle to remind us of these things. With sensationalism in the news, and stories of shooting sprees on a monthly basis, is violent crime really getting worse in America? Where does our perception that crime is growing meet the actual numbers? How does violent crime in America stack up against the rest of the world?
Perhaps the most difficult part of comparing violent crime in the US and abroad is determining who we’re comparing with the US. Middle Eastern, Central American, and African metropolises are by and large much more dangerous than US cities, but are they representative of the rest of the world?
Most of Europe is safer than Detroit, but are Detroit and Europe representative?
More than 3 out of 4 Americans feel safe walking around where they live at night. While this is a measurement of perceived crime, and not crime itself, the perception is that the US as a whole is as safe as most modern industrialized nations. This is probably bolstered by the fact that 78.6% of Americans have confidence in local police; a measure only topped by Scandinavian nations and Canada. Plus the fact that a large percentage of violent crime in America is concentrated in relatively small geographic areas, and, as we know, the US is a massive place.
Violent crime has declined sharply in the US since the mid 1990’s. While this is due to a variety of changes in enforcement, rehabilitation of criminals, and overall higher standards of living, a large portion of the similarities between the crime levels of US and western European countries hinges on differences in what crimes are reported. The FBI counts four categories of crime as violent crime: murder and non-negligible manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. While aggravated assault is the only assault category included under violent crime reports in the US, other nations include the much more numerous level 1 assault in violent crime reporting. This makes the US appear relatively less violent from a statistical perspective.
Another difference between the US and other relatively safe developed nations is that the US has a much higher homicide rate than similarly “safe” countries. 14,827 people were murdered in the US last year. This is way down from the 24,526 US murders in 1993, yet still leaves the US at 4.8 murders per 100,000 citizens. In comparison, Japan has .4 murders per 100,000 residents. Germany has .8, Australia 1, France 1.1, and Britain–who has recently garnered media attention for being the most dangerous wealthy European nation– has 1.2.
A Land of Extremes
The most dangerous US cities rank among the most deadly cities in the world. New Orleans, which topped the list in 2012, saw one homicide for every 2000 residents. To put this number in perspective, the average homicide per 100,000 citizen rate for the US is 4.8. Meaning you’re more than 10 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide in New Orleans than America as a whole.
Bear in mind, however, that the cities with the top 5 homicide rates in the world boast substantially higher rates than any other cities on the list. To put the numbers in context, you’re more than 3 times likelier to be the victim of a homicide in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, than in New Orleans, and more than 30 times more likely when comparing San Pedro Sula to the US as a whole.
Another notable trend is that no European or Asian cities are in the top 50 deadliest cities. This complicates the picture of the US standing toe-to-toe with the industrialized world as a low violent crime nation. At the very least, the deadliest cities in the US have many more homicides than the deadliest cities in Europe and Asia. At most, the US is a in a pandemic of homicides, even while other types of violent crime are stifled.
Types of Violent Crime
The US has a very specific brand of violence. Perhaps our criminals are just more motivated than the rest of the world, or perhaps having a firearm for every man, woman or child in America ups the ante in confrontations. Either way, the involvement of guns in violent crime (and the defense against violent crime) is a decidedly American phenomena amongst developed nations.
With gun restrictions making it harder to obtain private weapons in the UK, violent crimes involving guns have greatly decreased. The number of total violent crimes, however, is almost double that of the US. Of those crimes, only 19% even involve a weapon, and only 5% of those involve a firearm. That means that of you’re roughly 1/100 chance of being involved in a violent crime in Britain and Wales in any given year, you have roughly a 1/10,000 chance of being in a violent crime involving a gun.
Alternately, in the US your chances of being involved in a violent crime are less than 1/250. Of those involved with violent crimes, however, you have greater than a 1/10,000 chance of being involved in a violent crime involving a gun. In a country with less than half the violent crime, you have a greater chance of being the victim of a violent crime involving a gun.
Here’s where gun control advocates would say that the proliferation of easily available and private firearms enable gun crimes. This is also where gun rights advocates would point to the much lower violent crime rate in a similarly governed and wealthy nation. In a way, they’re both right. Much as the US is both in line with other developed nations on violent crime, and an outlier–with several cities more dangerous than anywhere in Europe or Asia–violent crime in America is as sprawling as the opportunities to commit crime.