According to the latest figures, homicides in Australia are at historic lows and compare well against international trends.
So what do the trends tell us and why is the homicide rate in Australia declining?
Perceptions and realities
A search of the Factiva media database reveals that over the past five years, there have been about 14,000 media stories each year concerning murder or homicide in Australia. In reality, there were 229 homicide incidents with 235 victims in Australia between July 1 2015 and June 30 2016.
By comparison, there were 1,295 road fatalities in Australia for 2016. This means a person is almost six times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than be murdered in Australia.
Our fascination with homicide is driven by the difficulty that we have in comprehending acts we see as evil – for example, we struggle to understand how a parent can kill their own child.
So what do the data tell us?
In Australia for 2015-16 the homicide rate was 0.95 per 100,000, the lowest equal rate recorded since 1989–90. The UN 2019 Global study in homicide report indicated that the global homicide rate has been slowly decreasing for over two decades, from a peak of 7.4 per 100,000 in 1993 to 6.1 per 100,000 in 2017. Finding a simple answer to explain this is difficult due to wide variations in regional, sub-regional and even city-based trends.
Australia compares well to other Western developed nations in terms of its homicide rate overtime.
Japan and Singapore had the lowest homicide rate for 2017 at 0.2 per 100,000, El Salvador had the worst homicide rate in the world for 2017 with a rate of 61.8 per 100,000.
Trends in Australia
In Australia, domestic homicides accounted for 45%, acquaintance homicides for 37% and stranger homicides 9% of the Australian total for 2015-16.
Of the victims, 65% were male and 35% female, and in 83% of the homicide incidents the victim knew their killer.
The data on perpetrators reveal a more striking gender disparity: 86% were male and 14% female. The youngest homicide offender was 11-years-old, while the oldest was 82.
More surprising may be that 45% of homicide offenders had no previous criminal history. In terms of motivation, arguments were the most common cause followed by jealousy, money, revenge, drugs and desertion in descending order.
What factors influence the homicide rate?
The UN study identified a number of contributors to acts of homicide. Drugs and alcohol are significant – these were present in 37% of homicide perpetrators in the global study.
In the AIC study, perpetrators were shown to having consumed alcohol in 20% of cases and drugs in 16%. This is a decrease from 2014-15, when alcohol was present 30% of homicide incidents and illicit drugs in 15% of incidents. Such lower rates of involvement match data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that show that Australians are drinking less over time.
A key factor in homicides is access to weapons. The UN study indicated that firearms were used in 54% of homicides globally in 2017. In the same year in the US, firearms accounted for 73% of all murders. In Australia, firearms accounted for only 19% of homicides in 2015-16.
This lower rate of firearm usage can be attributed to Australia’s tough firearm laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Since the implementation of these laws, gun ownership in Australia has declined by 23% per capita.
In the US, 42% of people indicated they live in a household where a gun is present.
Other factors contributing to homicide include socioeconomic and environmental conditions. Socioeconomic disadvantage is one reason why Indigenous Australians are over-represented in homicide figures. Indigenous Australians make up 3% of the general population, but 16% of homicide victims in 2015-16.
The UN Global report identified the lack of good societal governance, stable government and effective rule of law as contributors to homicide. The Global Peace Index provides a snapshot of those issues. Countries that perform poorly in areas such as homicide, incarceration, political instability, access to weapons, internal conflicts and displaced people are rated as less peaceful.
According to the index, the most peaceful country was Iceland. The least peaceful were Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan and Yemen. Australia rated 13 out of 163 countries, the US rated at 128. In 2016 Australia was rated at 15 out of 163 countries.
Gender roles were seen as important in terms of contributors such as demographics and cultural stereotypes. An example of responding to such stereotypes is the adoption of national strategies and special legal provisions to reduce domestic violence-related deaths.
Australia has adopted the The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children to address such issues. While there is still much to be done to fight the scourge of domestic violence, it is heartening to see that the intimate partner homicide rate reduced in 2015–16 to 0.26 per 100,000 population aged 18 years and older. This is the lowest rate recorded since 1989–90.
Australia should be confident that it is on the right track with a historically low homicide rate. While understanding homicide is always complex, Australia has engaged in a positive manner to address such issues and reduce the known risks.
However, we must not become complacent. There is always room for improvement when it comes to saving lives.
Terry Goldsworthy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Authors: Terry Goldsworthy, Associate Professor in Criminology, Bond University