According to Fox News and other Republican sources, America is experiencing a crime wave. Actually, we aren’t. What we are experiencing is a rise in homicides–almost entirely as a result of gun violence.
As a recent Guardian article explained: homicides were up across the US in 2020 and appeared to be primarily driven by rising gun violence. Other crimes, however, fell.
A preliminary government estimate shows a 25% single-year increase in killings in 2020. In some larger cities, the number of homicides has remained higher than usual through the early months of 2021.
While official national crime data will not be released for months, some trends are clear. The 2020 homicide increase happened across cities and towns of all sizes, from those with fewer than 10,000 residents to those with more than a million, according to preliminary FBI data.
The rise in homicides likely translated into an additional 4,000 to 5,000 people killed across the country compared with the year before, according to early estimates.
The increase in murder comes as robberies declined more than 10%, and rapes declined 14%. Overall, violent crime increased 3%. The obvious question is: why? Why is murder up while overall crime is down? And how worried should we be?
Some context is helpful: even with the rising homicide rates, Americans are safer than we have been historically.
And yet, even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides, Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s, and the homicide rate across big cities is still close to half what it was a quarter century ago.
New York City saw more than 2,200 killings in a single year in 1990, compared with 468 last year, according to city data. In the bigger picture, that’s a nearly 80% decrease.
Los Angeles saw more than 1,000 homicides a year in the early 1990s, compared with fewer than 350 last year.
Furthermore, the article quotes one scholar of crime for the observation that the increases in homicide are taking place in neighborhoods where homicides have traditionally been concentrated. The incidence is not spreading out.
The pandemic has clearly contributed.
There is some evidence that national factors, including the many stresses and disruptions of the pandemic, may have played a role in the 2020 homicide increase. The uptick was “widespread,” Rosenfeld said. In an analysis of big city crime trends for the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, “We found very few cities that did not experience pretty significant rises in homicide during 2020,” he said.
Whatever researchers ultimately determine, it is impossible to ignore the effect of America’s gun culture and the sheer number of weapons owned by our citizens.
A preprint study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that a spike in gun purchases during the early months of the pandemic was associated with a nearly 8% increase in gun violence from March through May, or 776 additional fatal and nonfatal shooting injuries nationwide. The researchers found that states that had lower levels of violent crime pre-Covid saw a stronger connection between additional gun purchases and more gun violence.
There has been a predictable effort to attribute the rise in homicides to criticisms of police, or to unrest blamed on Black Lives Matter, but the data simply doesn’t support those accusations.
Some police officials and their allies have asserted that last summer’s big, volatile protests against police violence diverted police resources and attention away from their normal patrols, and have suggested that demoralized, angry police officers might be less proactive or effective in dealing with violent crime.
But Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who writes extensively about homicide trends, examined 60 cities and found no correlation between the number of Black Lives Matter protests, and the size of a city’s homicide increase.
Rosenfeld cautioned that any policing-focused explanation for the homicide increase needed to explain why the change would have only affected serious and deadly violence.
“Most crime is down, including most felony, serious crime,” he said. “If the de-policing argument is correct, why did it only affect an uptick in violence and not other street crime?”
At this point, the stresses of the pandemic, especially on low-income neighborhoods, appear to be a significant cause of hostility and despair and “acting out.” But the easy availability of guns clearly was–and continues to be–an enormous factor.
I’ll believe Americans seriously want to reduce violence and homicides when we get serious about gun control. But I’m not holding my breath…