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Perspectives in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Homicide -- United States

In 1981, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting System (FBI-UCR) estimated that 22,516 instances of homicide occurred in the United States (1).* The rate was 9.8 per 100,000 population, representing a 3.9% decrease from the 1980 homicide rate. An estimated 591,007 potential years of working life were lost in 1981 due to homicide (2).

From 1977 to 1980, the homicide rate gradually increased, but since the end of 1980, the trend has leveled off (1). As in previous years, the South experienced the highest homicide rate--13 homicides per 100,000 population. The West had a rate of 10/100,000, while the Northeast and the North Central region had homicide rates of approximately 8 and 7/100,000, respectively (1).

In 1981, the FBI-UCR estimated that 77% of homicide victims were male. Approximately 54% were white, 44% black, and 2% of other races. Fifty-nine percent were less than 35 years of age (1).

Using homicide statistics for 1978, 1979, and 1980, life expectancy statistics for 1978, and population counts for 1980, the FBI-UCR calculated the probability of homicide victimization (1). A U.S. citizen's chance of becoming a homicide victim is 1 out of 153. Males have a 1/100 chance of becoming a victim, while females have a 1/323 chance. White persons have a 1/240 chance compared with a 1/47 chance for persons of other races (1). *Homicide is defined as the willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another, but does not include justifiable homicide, which is the killing of a felon by law enforcement officers in the line of duty or by private citizens.

Of all homicides reported to the FBI-UCR between 1976 and 1979, 19% were committed by members of the victims' families, 39% by acquaintances, and 13% by strangers; offenders were unidentified in 29%. Children less than 10 years old were generally the victims of family members; acquaintances were the most likely offenders of victims 10 to 59 years old; and offenders of victims greater than or equal to 60 were most likely to remain unidentified (Figure 1).

From 1976 to 1979, 47% of all homicides were precipitated by an argument, 1% involved a gang fight, 2% involved sexual assault, and 15% occurred during commission of another crime; miscellaneous non-felony circumstances accounted for 16% of homicides, and the circumstances were undeterminable in 20%. For victims under age 15, miscellaneous non-felony circumstances accounted for the greatest proportion of homicides. For victims 15 to 74 years of age, the precipitating circumstance usually involved an argument. For victims age 75 and older, homicides were most likely to occur during the commission of another crime (Figure 2).

In 1981, 50% of homicides were committed with handguns, 13% with rifles or shotguns, and 19% with cutting or stabbing instruments. The remaining 18% were committed with clubs, poison, hands, fists, feet, or other means (1). Reported by Office of the Center Director, Center for Health Promotion and Education, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Because the majority of homicides in 1981, as in previous years, were committed by relatives or acquaintances of the victims, the report states that "criminal homicide is primarily a societal problem over which law enforcement has little or no control," and suggests that homicides that do not occur during the commission of other crimes defy the traditional prevention and deterrence strategies of law enforcement agencies. This suggests that those acts of violence unrelated to other criminal activity are most immediately in need of public health prevention and intervention strategies (3). The foundations for medical and public health involvement in this problem have already been laid through work on family violence (3-7). Potential homicide prevention strategies include: a) educational programs focused on conflict and stress management for children and adults, b) promotion of neighborhood ties, c) the design of structurally safe environments, and d) domestic crisis-intervention programs. Additional basic research is needed to more clearly delineate the causes of homicide so that effective preventive strategies can be implemented.


  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform crime reports: crime in the United States 1981. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, 1982.

  2. CDC. Unpublished data.

  3. Jason J, Strauss LT, Tyler CW. A comparison of primary and secondary homicide in the United States. Am J Epidemiol (In press)

  4. Berardo FM. Symposium: Violence and the family. Journal of Marriage and the Family 1971;33:623-731.

  5. Gelles RJ. Violence in the family: a review of research in the 70's. Journal of Marriage and the Family 1980;42:873-5.

  6. Gibbons TCN. Violence in the family. Med Leg J 1975;45:76-88.

  7. Straus MA. Social stress and marital violence in a national sample of American families. Ann NY Acad Sci 1980;347:229-50.

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