In 2019 the homicide rate was 5 killed for every 100,000 in population in the USA. This rate compares unfavorably to other developed countries but how does it compare to 1860 America?
There were 989 murders/homicides for the year ending June 30, 1860 in the United States according to the 1860 Census. The population was 31 million. This is a homicide rate of 3 homicides per 100,000 in population.
Does this mean the country is more violent? The only answer is we cannot tell. There are many challenges when trying to make comparisons like this.
- Definitions of homicide and murder may have changed over time. Even the FBI tends to use the terms interchangeably. The 1860 Census had murder at 461 and homicides of 528. I added the two to get the 989 I used for the comparison.
- Data collection is likely better today, so we end up counting more homicides.
- Firearms are more effective, and the prevalence of semi-automatic handguns must make the result of violent encounters more deadly.
- Medical treatment today compared to 1860 must result in people surviving wounds they would not have survived in 1860.
- There is larger proportion of the population living in high density areas which only existed in a few of the largest cities in 1860.
The 1860 Census also provides data on suicides. There were 993 suicides for the year ending June 30, 1860 for a rate of 3 per 100,000 of population. The CDC puts the 2018 rate at 14 per 100,000. The 2018 rate for suicide by firearm was 7.4 or more than twice overall rate in 1860.
While the homicide rate difference was not enough to draw any conclusions regarding the how violent the USA is today vs. 1860, it is hard to say the same for suicides given the rate is almost 5 times greater today. Something of significance has changed.