Generally defined, murder is the unlawful killing of one human being by another. Although precise legal definitions may vary somewhat across jurisdictions, murders are usually classified into two categories: first-degree murder and second-degree murder. First-degree murder is unlawful killing involving malice aforethought (i.e., intent to kill) and premeditation. Killings also may be classified as murder in the first degree if they occur during the commission of another felony (e.g., a robbery or burglary). Second-degree murder involves malice aforethought but lacks premeditation or other aggravating circumstance (such as killing in the act of another felony). Murder is a subcategory of a broader umbrella term, homicide, which also includes manslaughter (killings lacking malice and premeditation) and killings that are considered excusable (i.e., accidental) or justifiable (e.g., police killing of a suspect who threatens life of the officer or another citizen).
Murder is generally considered to be the most reliably reported and recorded serious crime. Thus, it often serves as a barometer for the broader crime problem in the United States. For example, a modest spike in murder during the mid-1980s to early 1990s received a great deal of public attention and led many citizens to believe that the crime problem was progressively worsening. In reality, most types of serious crime had been in fairly steady decline since the 1970s.
Although a large share of murders have fairly mundane origins—resulting from arguments between acquaintances or family members—the frequent depiction in popular culture of rare but sensational murders has created a mystique and aura around murder that many people find intriguing.
Like many social problems, murder is not randomly dispersed in the population. Rather, specific demographic, social, and geographic patterns exist that have remained fairly consistent over time. For example, murder rates tend to be higher in larger cities and in places characterized by high rates of concentrated disadvantage (e.g., poverty, unemployment, school dropout, racial segregation). Murder offending and victimization rates also are several times greater for males than for females, for African Americans than for whites, and for young adults (e.g., ages 18–34) than for older adults (e.g., 55+). In addition, murder has shown a long-term regional pattern with higher rates occurring in the southern parts of the United States. The majority of murders occurring in the United States are committed with handguns or other firearms.
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