While the rate of homicide in the nation as a whole has remained fairly constant since 1975, in Alaska the rate per 100,000 people has fluctuated dramatically. At times it has been much higher than the overall national rate, but in recent years it has tended to be lower. Table 1 presents totals of homicides reported, rates per 100,000 and population figures for the country, Alaska, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Figure 1 reveals the pattern of homicide rates since 1975 for the nation, Alaska and Anchorage.
In 1975, nationwide, 20,505 homicides (classified as murder and nonnegligent manslaughter in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports) were reported — a rate of 9.6 per 100,000 people. In the same year in Alaska, 43 homicides were reported, a rate of 12.2 per 100,000. In 1982, when 81 homicides were reported, the Alaska rate reached a high for the 1975-1995 period of 18.5. In contrast, the national rate for that year was 9.1. From 1988 through 1994 the Alaska rate fell below the national average with the lowest rate reported in 1988 — 5.7 per 100,00. In 1995 the Alaska rate of 9.1 was again above the national rate of 8.2.
In examining homicide rates, particularly for Alaska and its individual cities, it is important to note that fluctuations are more marked because overall totals are low. For example, in 1977, 44 murders were reported in the state. This figure results in a rate of 10.8 per 100,000. The 8 additional homicides reported in 1978 caused the rate to rise to 12.9. Nationwide, the 19,121 murders in 1977 resulted in a rate of 8.8, while in 1978 the 19,555 homicides caused the rate to rise only to 9.0.
The rates for homicide in Anchorage also fluctuated dramatically between 1975 and 1995, from a high of 13.3 per 100,00 in 1978 when 16 murders were reported to a low of 4.4 in 1991 with 10 homicides reported. Like the rates for Alaska as a whole, Anchorage rates have been both higher and lower than the national rates, but as Figure 1 reveals, the pattern for the Anchorage homicide rate shows an overall decline over the twenty years for which data are presented.
According to Alaska Department of Public Safety figures, murder is the least common of violent crimes. Over the ten years from 1986 through 1995, murder ranged from a low 0.8 per cent of all violent crime in 1994 to a high of 2.2 per cent in 1987.
Murder Victim-Offender Relationship
Murder by a stranger is not as frequent an occurrence as is commonly believed. As Table 2 shows, homicides in which the victim is known to the offender are, in general, much more common in Alaska than homicides committed by strangers. For all ten years for which data are presented, murders committed by family members or cquaintances, when the relationship of the victim to the offender could be determined, outnumber those committed by strangers. Even if it were assumed that all cases in which the victim-offender relationship is not reported were, in fact, murders by strangers, only in one year — 1994 — would stranger murders outnumber those committed by family members or acquaintances.
Handguns or other firearms were the most common murder weapons over the period from 1986 through 1995. In 1986, firearms totaled 69.4 per cent of murder weapons; in 1987, 61 per cent; in 1988, 62 per cent; in 1989, 61 per cent; in 1990, 51 per cent; in 1991, 44.5 per cent; in 1992, 61.3 per cent; in 1993, 48.3 per cent; in 1994, 64.9 per cent; and in 1995, 56 per cent.
Homicide as a Cause of Death
Looking at homicide in the context of all causes of death also reveals its relative infrequency. According to figures reported by the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, in 1994 — the last year for which data have been assembled — homicide ranked as the ninth most frequent cause of death in Alaska, while in the U.S. as a whole it was the eleventh most frequent (Table 3). In comparison, suicide was the fourth most frequent cause of death in Alaska (ninth in the U.S.) in 1994, and accidents ranked third (fifth in U.S.).
Cancer and heart disease, which claimed 534 and 566 victims respectively, were the first and second leading causes of death in Alaska in 1994. Three hundred nineteen people died as the result of accidents and 148 individuals committed suicide.
Table 4 presents the various subdivisions of the overall category of accidents. The numbers included in these subcategories reveal that several types of accidental death — motor vehicle accidents, drowning, and air transport accidents — were also more frequent in Alaska in 1994 than death by homicide.