Demographics? Guns? Southern Culture? Reasons for Regional Homicide Variations Remain Elusive

Brendan Kirby, AL, September 20, 2013

Alabama recorded 325 homicides last year. If it had the same murder rate as New York City, though, that number would have been only about 240.

It is a reminder that even as the latest FBI crime report released this week shows killings remain near a multi-decade low, stark differences remain from region to region and city to city.

The South remains the country’s deadliest region, with a 2012 homicide rate of about 5.5 killings for every 100,000 residents. At 6.7 homicides for every 100,000 residents, Alabama’s rate is higher–even after accounting for an error in the FBI statistics pointed out by state officials.

Among cities with at least 100,000 residents, Birmingham ranked No. 9 last year, according to the FBI data. That is higher even than Chicago, a city that has gained a great deal of attention as a place with an out-of-control murder problem.

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Identifying the reasons certain places see murders more frequently than others–and devising strategies for combating the bloodshed–have proven elusive.

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James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said the most murderous cities and states tend to have higher concentrations of black residents, who on average are six times more likely to be involved in murders.

“There are certainly patterns there,” he said.

But Fox cautioned that race often masks deeper socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, unemployment and low levels of education.

“Demographics is a big part of it, but it’s not the whole story,” he said. “Of course, it’s not race, itself. There’s a whole array of economic issues. . . . It looks like demographics, but it’s really socioeconomic issues.”

Fox noted that in one study he conducted examining crime data, the gap between whites and blacks largely disappeared when he controlled for murder defendants who grew up in one-parent families.

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One of the more controversial theories over the years is a so-called “subculture of violence” in the South, with its roots in the Civil War.

“The South has always led the way in violence, as far as homicides,” said Costanza, the acting director of the University of South Alabama’s Center for Public Policy.

Costanza said noted criminologist Marvin Wolfgang first advanced the theory in 1967.

“History has a lot to do with it, probably more to do with it than we think,” he said. “Most Southerners, I think, would probably shrug this off.”

Another possible explanation for the chronically higher murder rate in the South is the region’s greater concentration of guns.

“I’m kind of partial to guns myself, or at least gun rights,” Costanza said. “But one possibility is we’ve always had a gun culture.”

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