September 14, 2011

Homicide is the most extreme act of violence. Although all homicides involve death at the hands of another, homicide is in actuality a diverse group of events. Homicides can occur between strangers, acquaintances, and intimate partners; they involve a wide array of physical forces and weapons and they include many types of motivations and precipitating factors. Although diverse, homicides have some predictable characteristics that can be used to improve efforts to prevent their occurrence.

In the United States, homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for those aged 1-14, the second leading cause for those aged 15-24, and the third leading cause for those aged 25-34. In 2000, 16,765 people were the victims of homicide.

The homicide rate in the United States has fluctuated over time. After low rates in the 1950s, homicide rates reached an all-time high of 10.2 per 100,000 population in 1980. After decreasing until 1985, rates rose again to reach 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991. Since 1991, the homicide rate has continued to decline, but this decline has slowed since 1999.

Homicides have very distinct gender patterns. Men are more than 10 times more likely than women to perpetrate a homicide. Approximately 65% of all homicides involve a male offender and male victim and an additional 22% involve a male offender with a female victim. Only 12% of all homicides involve a female offender.

The relationship between the victim and perpetrator varies by gender. When a woman is murdered, the most likely perpetrator is an intimate partner. In contrast, men are more likely to be killed by strangers or acquaintances. Over 40% of homicides committed by women are against spouses or boyfriends and another 17% are against children or other family members. Only 7% of homicides perpetrated by women are against strangers compared to 25% of those perpetrated by men.

Furthermore, research has found that over half of the men who were killed by their wives had precipitated their own deaths through shortor long-term use of physical force or threats. Thus, domestic violence is an integral factor when examining the role of women as victims and perpetrators of homicide.

Risk factors for homicide and violent behavior are usually evaluated at the level of the social/community unit and the individual. At the social/community level, one of the fundamental factors in the rate of homicide is social disorganization. Social disorganization is defined as the inability of a community to realize the common values of its members and a lack of social control. Characteristics of communities such as high population density, a high percentage of the population between 15 and 34, tolerance for violence, income inequality, racial inequality, poverty, low levels of education, and high unemployment have consistently been linked to high homicide rates. However, the relative strength of these variables in predicting homicide rates has varied widely in different studies.

Individual characteristics vary greatly by the circumstances of the homicide. However, young, minority males are consistently identified as the most likely perpetrators of homicide. Individual characteristics such as living in poverty, low educational attainment, and unemployment are linked to homicide, but the interrelationship between these as individual or societal characteristics has not been thoroughly examined.

Prosecution and incarceration of homicide offenders has been the main societal response to homicide. The criminal justice system identified many levels and types of homicides. Criminal homicide includes murder, manslaughter, and negligent homicide, and each of these involves willful, intentional harm. Homicides can also be noncriminal, such as in the case of self-defense or legal intervention.

However, communities and law enforcements have recently increased their focus on preventing violence, including homicide. Such interventions include community policing, social programs to increase life skills training, employment training and placement, victim’s support and advocacy groups, and improvements in the physical environment.

The World Health Organization has supported a science-based public health approach to reduce violence. The steps in such an approach include establishing national plans and policies for violence prevention, facilitating the collection of data to document and respond to the problem, building important partnerships with other sectors, and ensuring an adequate commitment of resources to prevention efforts.

SEE ALSO: Child abuse, Domestic violence, Mortality, Prison health, Sexual abuse, Violence

Suggested Reading

  • Fox, A., & Zawitz, M. W. (2003). Homicide trends in the United States: 2000 update (NCJ 197471). Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Gottesman, R. (Ed.). (1999). Violence in America: An encyclopedia. New York: Scribner’s.
  • Smith, M. D., & Zahn, M. A. (Eds.). (1999). Homicide: A sourcebook of social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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