The spate of 82 shootings in Chicago over the July 4th holiday weekend, in which at least 16 people were killed, drew national attention to gun violence in the nation’s third-largest city. But that focus risks missing the bigger picture: When adjusted by population, murder rates are far higher in smaller cities than in larger ones, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
In terms of raw number of murders, Chicago has long been at or near the top of U.S. cities, according to FBI crime statistics. In 2012, it had 500 murders, the most of any city in the country; Chicago has been among the top three cities with the most murders since 1985. (Fair warning: The FBI stats are compiled from reports by local police agencies that serve populations of at least 100,000, and for various reasons — including the fact that not all agencies reported data every year — can be difficult to compare meaningfully across cities or time periods.)
While the FBI won’t release official 2013 figures till later this year, the Chicago Tribune says there were 440 murders in the city last year. So far this year there have been 201 murders in Chicago, according to the Tribune’s count — roughly on pace with 2013.
But Chicago also has some 2.7 million residents, more than any other city except New York and Los Angeles, and you’d expect it to have more murders (and other crimes) than most other cities for that reason alone. Adjust the raw numbers for population size to get a murder rate, and a very different picture emerges.
According to the FBI figures, Flint, Mich., had the highest murder rate of any sizeable U.S. city in 2012, the most recent year available. There were 62 murders per 100,000 population (which, coincidentally, was just about Flint’s estimated population that year). Trailing Flint were Detroit (54.6 murders per 100,000), New Orleans (53.2 per 100,000) and Jackson, Miss., (35.8 per 100,000). Chicago, whose population is several times bigger than any of those cities, came in 21st, with 18.5 murders per 100,000 — nearly quadruple the national average, true, but still nowhere near the highest in the country. (It’s worth noting that New Orleans didn’t report data in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina struck.)
In fact, what’s striking is that from 1985 through 2012 only six cities have held the anti-honor of having the nation’s highest murder rate: New Orleans (12 times, most recently in 2011); Washington, D.C. (eight times, most recently in 1999); Detroit (four times, most recently 2006), Flint, Mich. (twice, also in 2010); Richmond, Va. (once, in 1997) and Birmingham, Ala. (once, in 2005).
Another thing that jumps out from looking at the murder-rate data: How the threshold for having the nation’s highest murder rate has fallen since the early 1990s, when the nation’s crack epidemic helped push violent-crime rates to record highs. In 1994, for instance, New Orleans led with 85.8 murders per 100,000; the next two cities, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., had rates of 70 or more per 100,000. Even in terms of raw numbers, Chicago has come a long way: In 1994 the city had 928 murders.