Violence Across North Carolina

June 26, 2023


  • Rural and low-income counties lead NC in rates of violent crime
  • Rates of suicide follow a very similar pattern
  • Nationally, violent crime is dropping sharply, but voters don’t perceive it that way


Violent crime has grown as a salient issue all across America, particularly leading up to last year’s election. Partisans of different stripes have differing answers about it: conservatives say crime is due to lax law enforcement, while liberals point to environmental factors and a society awash with the guns. Judging the merits of these claims is for informed voters to decide.

Yet one question is much easier to answer definitively: where in North Carolina is violent crime worst? And where in our state is anyone most likely to be touched by it? As usual, the most enthusiastic partisan pundits on this question tend to get the answer exactly wrong.

Drawing on official state data, we have very good insight into the relative rates of violence, deaths, and causes in nearly all counties across the state. The results are sobering – and probably not what most readers expect.

Violent deaths, by county

The State of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services maintains data on death rates through a variety of means. The department triangulates official records from law enforcement agencies, medical examiner records, and death certificates to come up with a highly rigorous combined report called the NC Violent Death Reporting System. This system also feeds the corresponding national-level reporting system at the Centers for Disease Control.

This reporting system is highly accurate, because it combines several different independent data sources. Unfortunately, this approach also builds in a significant delay in reporting of about 18 months. Thus, in the middle of 2023, we are only now expecting full-year 2021 data to arrive by late summer/early fall. The latest data currently available is only through calendar year 2020.

Swain, Cherokee, Camden, Bladen and Robeson counties led for the highest rates of violent crime in North Carolina in 2020. Some readers may be surprised to note that rural counties like these are heavily overrepresented in the top half, while urban and suburban counties rank much lower: Wake county, the largest by population, is 6th from the bottom.

This is partly due to the fact that urban counties tend to have larger and better-resourced law enforcement agencies. But it's also due to the greater availability of resources and opportunity - in other words, environmental factors - that prevent violence in the first place.

Homing in specifically on homicides, the results bear out a similar, but not identical, pattern:

Finally, a tragic fact about gun violence is that most of it is self-inflicted. Roughly two-thirds of of all North Carolina gun deaths are suicides. Guns kept in homes are far more likely to be used harming one of their residents (either an owner or family member) than any intruder.

This sobering pattern bears out in the data. Rates of suicide vary widely across the state:

On the whole, violent crime in America is down dramatically. Total victimization by violent crime today is less than half what it was in 2000, and less than a quarter of what it was in 1994.

Nevertheless, the politics (and, to some, the political advantages) of crime have never faded. Based mostly on sensationalist media, many voters perceive violent crime to be rising, not dropping; and many also perceive it to be largely an urban problem, instead of a rural one.

Yet violent crime is yet another issue that fits into the larger pattern of neglect and deterioration in North Carolina's rural counties. Will policymakers choose to address the root causes of rural violence, or seek to instead exploit it for political gain?

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