For 31 straight years, Louisiana has reported the nation’s highest murder rate.
To solve that puzzle, first consider a wider pattern in the South: a history of violence that stretches back further still.
A New York Times article in 1998 pointed to “a divergence that has persisted for as long as records have been kept” in which “the former slaveholding states of the old Confederacy all rank in the top 20 states for murder, led by Louisiana, with a rate of 17.5 murders per 100,000 people in 1996.”
A study of judicial records from 1800 to 1860 found that the murder rate in South Carolina was four times higher than in Massachusetts. More than a century later, in 1996, the ratio was similar. And in 2018, the murder rate was 7.7 per 100,000 in South Carolina and 2.0 in Massachusetts — again, about four times as high.
In the 1800s, the South tended to have more “frontier justice,” in which people took the law into their own hands, as well as more “honor justice,” in which signs of disrespect could advance to fatal encounters like duels.
A common theme between this high rate of white violence, and later the high rate of Black violence in the same region, appears to be a criminal justice system viewed as untrustworthy. People tend not to take part in a system they don’t trust, fueling cycles of retribution outside the law. Jill Leovy’s book “Ghettoside” described Black Americans as being both under-policed (not enough effort to solve murders) and over-policed (for minor infractions).
Criminologists tread carefully in inferring causation. For example, there is no consensus on the main reason for the significant drop in crime in the United States over most of the last three decades. And there is no consensus on what caused the big national rise in murders this past year.
Many factors could help explain Louisiana’s unwelcome ranking, including disproportionate racial segregation, job discrimination and poverty. But nearby states have a lot of these problems, too. So what might make Louisiana distinct?
It’s not just New Orleans
New Orleans has had the nation’s highest murder rate for any big city a dozen times since 1993, with 424 murders in 1994 at the height of the city’s bloodletting. The city’s murder rate that year stood at 86 murders per 100,000 residents, the single worst ever reported by a big American city.
But even if New Orleans were removed from Louisiana’s count, the state would have recorded the nation’s highest or second-highest murder rate in 12 of the last 15 years.
New Orleans reported its fewest murders citywide of any year since 1971 in 2019, but the murder rates in other parts of the state have slowly crept up. The state capital, Baton Rouge, logged its worst three-year stretch on record between 2017 and 2019, and the combined metropolitan parishes (such as Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany) reported more murders in 2019 than New Orleans for the first time on record.
“It is poverty and its twin sister or brother of mass incarceration,” said Marc Morial, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is now the National Urban League president. “And it’s easy access to guns.”
Louisiana and Mississippi tend to rank among the poorest states in the country. Louisiana has ranked in the bottom five in poverty rate in 37 of the last 40 years, including last or second to last 19 times over that span. Only Mississippi had a higher share of its population below the poverty line in 2019, according to census estimates.
There is not a clearly established causal link between poverty rates and murder rates, however. Things like high unemployment and poor education factor into the state’s poverty rate, which in turn could contribute to higher rates of murder in Louisiana.
(Mississippi may now actually have more murders per capita than Louisiana. It’s the only state where individual agencies, not the state itself, submit data directly to the F.B.I. Mississippi had the nation’s second-highest murder rate in 2019, but only 29 percent of Mississippi agencies representing 54 percent of the state’s population reported data.)
‘World’s prison capital’
Louisiana has also had the highest or second-highest incarceration rate in each of the last 19 years, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.
An article in The Times-Picayune in 2012 called Louisiana the “world’s prison capital” and reported that “more than half of the inmates in the state are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs, and the state’s correction system has created financial incentives for those sheriffs to keep prisons full.”
Louisiana did take on lowering the state’s incarceration rate through a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in 2017. This effort probably contributed to the state’s incarceration rate dropping by 20 percent between 2012 and 2019, compared with a 12.7 percent drop nationally, though the state still had the nation’s highest incarceration rate in 2019.
“When you expose people to violent environments, and the most violent environment in the U.S. on a per-capita basis is a jail/prison, it is much more likely that they are going to have picked up violent practices to survive,” said Flozell Daniels, the chief executive of the Foundation for Louisiana, who was the governor’s appointee to the state’s 2017 Justice Reinvestment Task Force. “This argument that public safety and a diminishment of violence is somehow attached to mass incarceration falls flat. If that were the case, we’d be the safest place in the world.”
Then there are the guns.
A higher share of murders has been committed via firearm in Louisiana compared with the national average every year since at least 1985, with a firearm being the weapon used in 84 percent of murders in Louisiana in 2019 (compared with 74 percent nationally). Louisiana also has the highest rate of firearms recovered and traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (A.T.F.), suggesting a high rate of illegal or stolen weapons in the state.
“Lots of illegal or stolen weapons, an illegal system in trafficking in weapons, plus drugs and narcotics, produce this lethal mixture,” said Mr. Morial, who lamented a lack of effort by the state government to address gun violence. “Look at the Legislature to see how many criminal laws versus efforts to address homelessness there have been. The state’s response is more of the same rather than addressing what’s driving it.”
There was a reasonably strong correlation between the rate of guns recovered and traced in a state in 2019 and that state’s murder rate, although traced firearms are not inherently “representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals,” according to the A.T.F.
An inheritance of violence
Is Louisiana’s history of violence and corruption really distinct from other states?
Researchers have noted that slaves working on the sugar plantations of Louisiana worked in more barbaric conditions (with higher mortality rates) compared with those working in cotton fields elsewhere in the South.
“Even before the Civil War, Louisiana was infamous for its frequent feuds, street fights, duels, whiskey brawls, vigilance committees and outbursts of violence,” the historian Gilles Vandal wrote.
The post-Civil War period of Reconstruction was particularly brutal. The historian Eric Foner described the massacre in Colfax, La., in 1873 as the worst instance of racial violence during Reconstruction, with as many as 150 Black fatalities.
Two years ago, the mayor of New Orleans officially apologized for the 1891 lynchings of 11 Italian-Americans — one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. (The lynch mob was enraged by not-guilty verdicts after the city’s police chief was murdered.)
The author A.J. Liebling said in 1960 that Louisiana’s hot-tempered political factions were matched only by Lebanon’s. Louisiana was home to the populist Huey Long (considered a demagogue by many, he was assassinated in 1935); David Duke, who ran for governor in 1991 after having been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan; Edwin Edwards, who won that race against Mr. Duke despite a reputation for corruption (“Vote for the crook. It’s important.” was a popular bumper sticker supporting Mr. Edwards, who served four terms as governor and also served a federal prison sentence on racketeering charges.)
In Dennis Rousey’s book, “Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889,” he wrote that New Orleans’s murder rate was about 10 times that of Philadelphia from 1857 to 1859, and that only about a fifth of New Orleans murders led to conviction because witnesses and possible jurors were too petrified to participate.
Samuel Hyde Jr.’s 1998 book “Pistols and Politics” chronicled feud-related anarchy in Louisiana’s Florida parishes from 1810 to 1935 that put the Hatfields and McCoys to shame (the parishes include East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany). The area had among the nation’s highest rural murder rates and no strong governing authority, “so a level of despair set in that people could not get justice through the courts,” he said in an interview.
“People are proud of the antics of their fathers and grandfathers, passed from one generation to the next,” said Mr. Hyde, a history professor at Southeastern Louisiana University.
The honor code of “guarding your respect” and “he had it coming” endures, he said, adding that it’s possible to “risk your life just by insulting the L.S.U. Tigers.”
“I’m more concerned now than when I wrote the book,” he said. “People are armed to the teeth.”
It’s unclear whether Louisiana’s official streak as the state with the highest murder rate will continue into a 32nd year — the official F.B.I. tally will be released in September. But once patterns are established, they seem hard to break.