By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The rural New England states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are the most peaceful U.S. states, a distinction that gives them an economic advantage over the most violent, including Louisiana, Tennessee and Nevada.
Violence and its aftermath cost the entire U.S. economy some $460 billion last year, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace's second annual United States Peace Index, which was released on Tuesday.
The study found that the United States has become a less violent place over the past two decades, based on an analysis of historic data on homicides and other violent crime, the number of people incarcerated, police employment and the prevalence of small arms.
While the United States continues to be rocked by highly publicized cases of gun violence - from the February shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida to an April shooting spree in Tulsa, Oklahoma by two men that left three people dead and four wounded - the overall homicide rate has declined, the study found.
"You have a really established trend of improving peacefulness in the United States," said Steve Killelea, an Australian entrepreneur who serves as executive chairman of the institute, which also produces an annual Global Peace Index, which tracks relative peacefulness of countries.
Over that time two of the most populous states - New York and California - recorded the largest drops in violence, a trend that reflects decades of focus on fighting urban crime, Killelea said.
"Certainly if one sees there is a problem and takes a concerted action to solve the problem, you are much more likely to see results," Killelea said.
COSTS VARY WIDELY
The most violent states pick up far more of the nation's overall $460 billion tab for violent crime than their peaceful neighbors. The cost estimates for 2011 cover a range of expenses - from the direct costs of medical treatment for victims and incarceration of those convicted of violence, to lost productivity.
A state's relative size also has an influence on how much its economy loses to violence.
Vermont, which was ranked as the second least-violent state and also has the second-lowest population, took the smallest economic hit from violence at $446.7 million.
California, which was ranked middle of the pack at 32nd most peaceful, had the highest economic toll from violence at $63.03 billion. That reflected its enormous size - it is the most populous U.S. state, home to roughly one of eight Americans.
The group for the first time evaluated the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas. It found that the most peaceful were Cambridge, Newton and Framingham, Massachusetts - all outside Boston; Edison and New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Seattle, Bellevue and Everett, Washington.
The most violent metropolitan areas were Detroit, Livonia and Dearborn in Michigan; New Orleans, Metairie and Kennery in Louisiana, and Miami, Miami Beach and Kendall in Florida.
In addition to lower costs, less violent states measure well on other social outcomes, with healthier, better educated and more engaged citizens, the study found.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Jackie Frank)