Which big American cities have the highest homicide rates? And how does Pa. stack up? | The Numbers Racket

Sen. Tom Killion, R-Montgomery, rallies in the Capitol for Senate Bill 90, which would create a Red Flag gun control law.
Sen. Tom Killion, R-Montgomery, rallies in the Capitol for Senate Bill 90, which would create a reg flag gun control law. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

When it comes to talking about America’s largest cities, our judgments are often colored by the stories we hear about the crime and murder rates. More often than not, those fears are magnified by what we see on the news — or what we hear from politicians out on the campaign trail.

A story by The Trace, a news website that researches and tracks gun violence in the United States, provides a bit of context to the blizzard of data the comes flying out of our TV screens every day. That reporting is the focus of this week’s edition of The Numbers Racket.

First up, the good news: Despite some recent conflagrations in such cities as Baltimore and Chicago (where the murder rate nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016), the long-term murder rate in the United States is generally on the downswing, The Trace found.

“Following its peak in the early-’90s, the national murder rate has declined steadily. The rate for big American cities — those with populations greater than 250,000 — follows a similar pattern, though with more dramatic fluctuations,” The Trace’s reporting concluded.

Despite an uptick between 2014 and 2016 in some larger cities, rates “dropped slightly in 2017, to 5.3 murders per 100,000 people — a sign that the short-term increase may be over,” The Trace found, citing recent FBI data.

In addition, data compiled by American Violence “shows that in 2018, homicide rates decreased in many of the country’s most violent cities, including St. Louis, Baltimore, and Birmingham. The country’s overall murder rate still remains far below those recorded in the ’90s,” The Trace reported.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with 20.1 and 18 murders per 100,000 people, finished 11th and 13th nationwide with the highest murder rates among large cities in 2017. That’s higher than Washington D.C., which has the image in our popular imagination of being highly dangerous.

In Philadelphia, there have been 415 shooting victims so far this year, according to data compiled by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Inquirer’s map tracking violence in the City of Brotherly Love distinguishes between fatal and non-fatal incidents. Through the first 136 days of 2019, only 20 have passed without a shooting in the state’s largest city, according to The Inquirer.

Nearly 20 percent of the shootings in Philadelphia this year have resulted in fatalities, according to The Inquirer’s data. And more than eight in 10 of the shooting victims have been black, the newspaper’s research concluded. More than nine in 10 of the total shooting victims were men.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette similarly tracks Allegheny County’s homicides, logging 26 incidents so far in 2019. An interactive put together by the newspaper includes the names of the victims and links to their individual stories. Shootings are listed among causes of death that also include beatings and strangulation.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have long been unwilling to enact new gun restrictions in response to spasms of violence. A new state law that took effect last year gives gun owners who are “subject to a final protection from abuse order or a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence” 24 hours to surrender their firearms to law enforcement, The Tribune-Review reported in April.

A Montgomery County lawmaker’s proposal to allow family or police to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate firearms from an individual deemed at risk of harming himself or others has sparked fierce debate among both gun rights’ activists and civil libertarians alike.

This data is alarming, and it should be. But it’s only part of the picture.

As The Trace notes, “homicides comprise only roughly a third of all gun deaths. And because of that “it is important to know the data on gun suicides, which account for the other two-thirds firearms fatalities, and are rising in 20 states. It’s also valuable to look at how gun violence harms specific populations, like domestic abuse victims and children.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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