Violent crime occupies a central place in American political culture, both as an element of the national character and as the focus of continuing policy debates on issues as disparate as school integration and gun control. This paper seeks to identify the root of the American penchant for violent crime, and for homicide in particular, and sketches its political implications. An “opportunity” model, stressing reaction to social immobility in a society with pervasive achievement-oriented symbols, provides an appealing approach. It fails to explain, however, the regional violence characterising the South. Institutional factors, notably the weaknesses in a fragmented, locally-controlled system of law enforcement within a non-parliamentary democracy, must also contribute to this American problem.