Special Report

America's Most Violent (and Peaceful) States

Samuel Stebbins, Evan Comen, Michael B. Sauter

Detailed Findings:

Violent crimes consist of rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicide. The most heavily weighted components of our index were these direct manifestations of violence. The annual murder rate received full weight, as did the annual violent crime rate, excluding murder.

Incarceration rates were also factored into our index, in part because in a perfectly peaceful state there would be no need to send anyone to prison. Additionally, prisons tend to be exceptionally violent places where nonviolent offenders are commonly the targets of violence.

The fourth and final component of our index is the share of suicides carried out with a firearm — a form of manifest violence not captured by the standard violent crime rate. Nearly 43,000 Americans took their own lives in 2014; about half of these cases involved a gun.

Firearm suicide is also a close approximation for the prevalence of guns in each state. While owning a gun is not inherently violent, many Americans buy guns for self defense, and high ownership rates might be indicative of some level of violence in the area. Additionally, the presence of guns greatly increases the likelihood of gun violence — accidental or otherwise. Of the 15 states with the highest gun ownership rates, 14 have a higher firearm fatality rates than the nation as a whole.

Across the United States, about 90% of violent crimes occur in major metropolitan areas even though urban areas are home to only about 80% of the U.S. population. Indeed, high crime rates in many of the most violent states are driven by urban crime. In Louisiana, the most violent state in the country, both Monroe and Alexandria metro areas have violent crime rates that are more than double the U.S. violent crime rate.

One of the strongest determinants of the prevalence of violence or peace in a given state is its economic environment. More violent states tend to be characterized by lower incomes and fewer job opportunities, while more peaceful states are often relatively affluent, with low unemployment.

For example, of the 10 most peaceful states, nine have lower unemployment rates than the 4.3% U.S. figure and nine have a higher annual median income than the $55,775 the typical U.S. household earns. Conversely, of the 10 most violent states, seven have a higher unemployment rate than the U.S. as a whole, and only one has a higher median household income than is typical nationwide.

Education also appears to play a role in the presence of violence on the state level. While nine of the 10 most peaceful states are home to a greater share of college-educated adults than the nation as a whole, in all 10 of the most violent states, educational attainment is lower than is typical nationwide.

Methodology:

To identify the most violent and most peaceful states, 24/7 Wall St. created an index based on four measures. We were inspired by the 2012 United States Peace Index from the Institute for Economics and Peace. We gave full weight in the index to two of the four measures: the number of murders and the number of violent crimes (excluding murder) per 100,000 people, both of which came from the FBI’s 2015 Uniform Crime Report. Incarceration rates, which capture state prisons only, were given a three-quarter weighting and came from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Firearm suicides as a percent of total suicides are for 2008 through 2014 to adjust for outliers and are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was the fourth component of the index, receiving a one-quarter weight. These data sets are frequently based on disparate and inconsistent population totals, so all state rates for the purposes of this index were calculated based on 2015 one-year Census American Community Survey population counts. The annualized suicide and firearm-suicide rates for 2008 to 2014 used the CDC’s population count as the denominator. Data on crime for cities and metropolitan areas also came from the FBI and incorporate the FBI’s population estimates.

In addition to these indexed measures, we reviewed the gun ownership rate in each state as of 2013, obtained from a study published in 2015 by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. The survey asked state residents whether they live in a household with at least one firearm of any kind.

Poverty rates, median household incomes, and the percentages of adults with at least a high school diploma or with at least a college degree in each state also came from the ACS. Unemployment rates came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and are seasonally adjusted for May 2017.