Randolph Roth


On his book American Homicide

Cover Interview of August 29, 2010

In a nutshell

No matter where Americans live, their risk of being murdered is higher than it is in any other first-world democracy.

From 1965 to 1992, the homicide rate in the United States averaged 9 per 100,000 persons per year.  It declined in the mid-to-late 1990s to 6 per 100,000 persons per year, but it remains comparatively high.  The next most homicidal affluent democracy, Canada, has had only a quarter of the homicides per capita that the United States has had since World War II.  The world’s other affluent democracies have had homicides per capita rates ranging from a fifth of that of the U.S. (Australia) to less than a tenth (Ireland).

The United States ranks first even when populations are compared by gender and ethnicity.  Both women and men are far more likely to be murdered in the United States, and Americans of European descent, the least likely victims of homicide in recent decades, were murdered at a rate of 5.5 per 100,000 persons per year from 1965 to 1992.  By itself that rate is high enough to make America two and a half to eight times more homicidal than any other affluent democracy.

Americans are exposed to that high annual homicide rate for their entire lives, an expected 78 years for children born today.  The likelihood that a newborn American will be murdered if the homicide rate of the recent past persists—as it did for most of the twentieth century—is not 9 in 100,000, but 78 times that.  In practical terms, that means one of every 142 children born today will be murdered—one of every 460 white girls, one of every 158 white boys, one of every 112 nonwhite girls, and one of every 27 nonwhite boys.

Why do homicide rates vary so drastically from one society to another, from one time to another, if murders are so alike in their motives and circumstances?  Why, if humans have roughly the same capacity for violence, does murder claim one in 10,000 adults in some societies, and one in 20 in others?

To find out what circumstances ultimately foster high homicide rates we first have to go back through history, chart their course, and then make the connections between historical circumstances and the human beings who commit murders.

Doing so shows that homicide rates among adults are not determined by proximate causes, like poverty, drugs, unemployment, alcohol, race, or ethnicity. Instead, factors that seem on the face of it to be impossibly remote—like the feelings that people have toward their government, the degree to which they identify with members of their own communities, and the opportunities they have to earn respect without resorting to violence—determine homicide rates.

In other words, history holds the key to understanding why the United States is so homicidal today.