It’s not unusual to see increases and decreases from year to year in the leading causes of deaths in the United States. Most often, the changes appear small – usually under 10 percent – and only occasionally do the changes reach double figures.
That’s why the 30 percent increase in the national homicide rate from 2019 and 2020 is so remarkable. These new data were released on October 6 as part of NCHS’s quarterly release of provisional mortality data for the United States.
The increase itself was not unexpected – the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report had documented a similar increase just days before. However, the 30 percent jump in homicide rates in 2020 was the biggest one-year increase in over a century. The only larger increase occurred back in 1905, and experts view that as a statistical blip. It was likely the result of several states with high homicide rates being added to the death registry as the National Vital Statistics System was first being built. In modern history, the previous record increase for homicide was in 2001, when rates increased 20 percent, largely due to the September 11 attacks.
The numbers for 2020 are striking: the homicide rate rose from 6.0 homicides per 100,000 in 2019 to 7.8 in 2020. And the 2020 rate is the highest in the U.S. since 1995. Still, the 2020 rate was lower than the rate in the early 1980s of more than 10 homicides per 100,000.
Of course, most people want to know the reasons behind the big increase – a question on the minds of many public health and justice professionals. However, NCHS mortality data come from death certificates, which don’t provide the context needed to answer these questions. Still, 2020 was obviously an unusual and turbulent year. There was the arrival of the pandemic, triggering economic turmoil and reports of emotional despair, as well as protests in many U.S. cities, some of which turned violent. Even before this unusual year, data showed the homicide rate had been, for the most part, inching up in recent years.
TOTAL HOMICIDES AND RATES: UNITED STATES, 1999-2019
While the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report can provide some of the context behind the rise in homicide, NCHS will also release additional data in the coming weeks that provide a more complete picture. Future updates will include demographic details about the victims and information about the methods used in these homicides. Already, the 2020 provisional data show a 14 percent increase in death rates from all firearm injuries, including homicide. But that increase accounts for less than half the increase observed for homicide. Of note, the provisional data also show a slight decline in the suicide rate in 2020. That decline is likely not enough to offset a (potentially) large increase in firearm-related homicides.
While homicide rates increased in nearly every state, there was a wide difference in the 2020 rates based on geography.
States with the highest homicide rates:
- South Carolina
The District of Columbia had a higher homicide rate (24.4 homicides per 100,000) than any state.
States with the biggest rate increase in 2020:
- Montana (+83.8)
- South Dakota (+80.6)
- Delaware (+62.3)
- Kentucky (+61.0)
Only two states, Alaska and Maine, had declines in homicide rates (-32.4 and -11.1 respectively).
Homicide is one of 21 leading causes of death included in the quarterly provisional data release. These estimates are featured in a data visualization dashboard on the NCHS web site. Some of the significant findings on death rates from other causes of death in the most recent quarter of data include:
- Unintentional injuries – A nearly 17% increase from 2019 to 2020.
- Influenza/Pneumonia – A 17% decline from April 2019-March 2020 to April 2020-March 2021.
- Diabetes – A nearly 17% increase from April 2019-March 2020 to April 2020-March 2021.
- Hypertension – A nearly 16% increase from April 2019-March 2020 to April 2020-March 2021.
The data visualization dashboard is available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/mortality-dashboard.htm#