One of the most prevalent ideas about America is that it is a dangerous place to live. The global stereotype remains that America is a largely lawless country, where death stalks the streets of major cities and where casual visitors are vulnerable to being gunned down by paranoid neighbours or policemen. But in fact the picture of America that emerges from a careful review of the evidence is one of a relatively crime-free society.
America’s murder rate is high relative to most developed nations
In Western Europe, the murder rate is around 1-2 per 100,000. In Spain, in Eastern European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and in what are sometimes termed the ‘Anglosphere’ countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the murder rate is normally between 2 and 3 per 100,000.
America, by contrast, has a widely varying murder rate, ranging from just over 10 per 100,000 in 1991 to the current level of around five per 100,000. It is notable that most countries of British descent have a higher murder rate than Western Europe (the exception being England itself, although the rate there has been rising over recent years).
The African-American community’s massive homicide rate accounts for most of America’s murders
This rate is around 26 per 100,000, but reached as high as 50.4 in 1991 – figures similar to or higher than Russia's enormous homicide rate (19.9 in 1997). The ‘white’ community in America, which also includes most Hispanics, has a much lower homicide rate at around three per 100,000. This number is not particularly out of line for Anglosphere countries, although certainly at the higher end.
Two factors seem to explain this high black murder rate in America. First is the violence of the drug trade, which is rife in many African-American communities. As crime expert Eli Lehrer notes: “The most likely person to murder you is your fellow drug dealer”. One analysis of a drug-selling gang discovered each of its members had a 7% chance of being murdered every year. Second, the legacy of slavery, Pepperdine Professor James Q. Wilson has argued, has made family structure and community solidarity much less pronounced among African Americans, which has led to problems with fatherlessness and family breakdown that in turn lead to greater disrespect for the law and a male youth culture based around aggression.
One consequence of the high concentration of America’s murders in one community is that most parts of the US experience very few murders. 85% of counties in the United States recorded no juvenile homicides in a typical year. More broadly, murder is by far the least common serious crime and should be understood in that context. It is a poor indicator of overall rates of crime.
Guns and crime in America
America is often associated with high levels of gun crime. But this again is best understood in the context of overall rates of crime. The BBC’s North American Editor Justin Webb, no slavish defender of America, notes how guns help reduce some crimes: “I am fascinated by the fact, as it appears to be, that burglaries while a householder is in a home are far, far fewer in number in the US than they are in the UK. Guns - the argument goes - make innocent people safer.” He notes: “I have met incredulous British tourists who have been shocked to the core by the peacefulness of the place, the lack of the violent undercurrent so ubiquitous in British cities, even British market towns… It is a paradox. Along with the guns there is a tranquillity and civility about American life of which most British people can only dream.”
Overall rates of crime – personal assaults and property crimes – are falling in America and bear favourable international comparison
Comparative studies offer the best indicators of overall rates of crime. Countries differ greatly in their definitions of offences and in the ways that police record crime, and nations’ crime surveys often ask different questions, making direct comparisons very difficult. The International Crime Victims Survey, conducted approximately every two years, aims to overcome these difficulties by asking the same questions of representative samples of different countries’ populations.
Assault and robbery: In the first such survey, in 1989, America fared worst. But in the 2000 survey, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Scotland and Sweden all recorded a greater prevalence of crime than the United States. In both Britain and Australia, more than 6% of the population reported being the victim of a personal assault or threatened assault within the last year, double the American rate; 5% of Canadians gave the same response. Nevertheless, high assault and robbery rates are not an English-speaking phenomenon. For example, 4% of French and Swedish respondents were victims of assault, and the French robbery rate was equal to the Australian and English rate, at just over 1% of the population (the U.S. figure was 0.6%).
Property crimes: For burglaries and thefts, Britain and Australia once more lead the way, along with Poland, with the United States taking a middle position before France, Belgium, the Netherlands and similar countries.
When compared with the rest of the developed world, America's non-murder crime rate appears strikingly good. Americans suffer crime far less than residents of most European states and significantly less than other English-speaking peoples do. That goes for all types of crime, property and violence. America's reputation as a country overrun by crime might have been deserved in 1989, but now it's a misconception. The data suggests the United States is one of the safest places to live in the developed world.
Homicide Trends in the United States – Bureau of Justice Statistics
Crime and Justice in the United States and in England and Wales, 1981-1996 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
Why We Don’t Marry – James Q. Wilson
 'An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang's Finances', Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2000, p.758, at http://www.streetgangs.com/academic/gangfinance.pdf
 'Fighting it out', Justin Webb, BBC News, 17 March 2008, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/justinwebb/2008/03/fighting_it_out_1.html
 'America's ‘safety catch’', Justin Webb, BBC News, 22 April 2008, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7359513.stm