What Are the Odds of Being Murdered?

Flip through the channels on television on any ordinary weekday evening and you’ll be presented with a variety of entertainment options, many of which feature murder, in documentary or drama form. Murder, or intentional homicide, persistently occupies a place at the center of the popular imagination. Yet, for all its popularity, for all its pervasiveness in primetime television, local news or even bestseller lists, murder is a relatively rare occurrence.

The Odds of Being Murdered in Context

The odds of being murdered are relatively low when compared to other possible causes of death. In its Final Data report of U.S. deaths for 2010, the CDC reported assault (homicide) dropped off of the list of the 15 leading causes of death, becoming 16th, following “pneumonitis due to solids and liquids.”

Based on the data from the CDC report, deaths due to homicide accounted for less than 1% of all U.S. deaths, with the odds of being murdered in a given year at 1 in 18,989. On the other hand, heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounted for 24% of all U.S. deaths, with the odds of dying of heart disease at 1 in 517. Image: Crime Scene

Murder and Place: Location, Communities, and Socioeconomics

The odds of being murdered vary significantly on the basis of location. However, it must be noted that careful analysis of the data reveals that “location” is most appropriately understood as referring not only to geography but also to other ways of defining place, including community type and socioeconomic conditions.

When murder rates are discussed from the perspective of location, people often ask which places—specific regions, states, counties, cities, or areas—have the highest and lowest homicide rates. Detailed data on the numbers of murders occurring annually can be found in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). Moreover, when cities or communities are grouped together or categorized by community type—rural, suburban or urban—an apparent trend emerges. Rural communities and suburban communities have lower average homicide rates than do urban communities (Schwartz 2010). 

Cities, and more broadly, community types, are home to distinctive sets of socioeconomic conditions that form the backdrop of the murders that occur. Socioeconomic context is an important variable to consider when discussing the odds of being murdered. An individual’s socioeconomic context can be defined broadly as the aggregate combination of education, income, and occupation of the people who comprise his or her social sphere. Individuals who are a part of poverty-stricken socioeconomic contexts face greater odds of being murdered while individuals belonging to more affluent socioeconomic contexts have lower odds of being murdered.

Murder and Demographics

Besides location in general and socioeconomic context in particular, there are demographic characteristics that are relevant to an individual’s odds of being murdered, including sex, race and age. Males are more likely to be murdered than females. Individuals of African-American descent are more likely to be murdered than members of any other racial group. Individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the greatest risk of being murdered. Additionally, individuals are most likely to be murdered by someone they know, and not a stranger.

It is also noteworthy that murder victim characteristics mirror those of murder perpetrators. The exception to this general pattern is the fact that females are usually murdered by males and less frequently by females (Schwartz 2010). In other words, an individual is most likely to be murdered by someone who has the same demographic traits, within his own socioeconomic context. More often than not, males are murdered by males, blacks are most often murdered by blacks and young adults are most often murdered by young adults.

However, murder and violence are tied not only to individual demographic traits, but also intrinsically to community level characteristics as well, as “communities are often segregated by SES, race, and ethnicity,” the American Psychological Association (APA) asserts. The APA goes on to explain that “community level risk factors for violence include increased levels of unemployment, poverty, and transiency; decreased levels of economic opportunities and community participation; poor housing conditions; and a lack of access to services.”

Murder, Relationships, and Crime

Murder is often precipitated by one of two additional factors as well: either an interpersonal relationship characterized by a history of confrontation or abuse or an active attempt to commit another crime.

Less than 30% of murders occur as a result of an active attempt to commit a felony, such as a robbery.

Murders involving a male victim and a male perpetrator most frequently occur during the course of or following a confrontation, an argument that in many cases originated because of a perceived slight, challenge or insult on the part of a male friend or acquaintance. Schwartz, Anderson and Messerschmidt each offer similar descriptions of this particular male murder motive, which Schwartz summarizes:

Whereas middle- and upper- class males may have a myriad of opportunities to “do masculinity,” lower class males living in concentrated urban poverty may, over time and as an adaptation to persistent economic strain, place stronger collective emphasis on more achievable goals than financial success, such as respect and prestige conferred to those with a street reputation (Anderson 1999; Messerschmidt 2004).

The murder of female victims is most often perpetrated within the framework of an intimate relationship. Usually, homicides against women are carried out by their male partners, at what turns out to be the end of a trajectory of escalating abuse or dominance (Schwartz 2010).


Murphey, Sherry, Jiaquan Xu, and Kenneth Kochanek. “Deaths: Final Data for 2010 .” National Vital Statistics Reports 61.4 (2013): 1-117. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 26 Oct. 2013. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_04.pdf>

Schwartz, Jennifer. “Murder in a Comparative Context.” Violent Crime: Clinical and Social Implications. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010. 276. Print. PDF available at: <http://cooley.libarts.wsu.edu/schwartj/pdf/Homicide_Schwartz_class.pdf>.

Uniform Crime Reports – Crime in the United States 2012: Murder.” FBI. FBI, 29 July 2013. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/violent-crime/murder/murdermain>.

Violence & Socioeconomic Status.” http://www.apa.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. <http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-violence.aspx>

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