In 2020, murders in the United States spiked more than 27 percent — the largest percentage increase in at least six decades. Last year, murders went up again.
From 1991 to 2014, America’s murder rate plummeted
by more than half, reported The New York Times. Experts still don’t agree on why that happened. Among
the many possibilities: mass incarceration, changes in
policing, reduced exposure to lead and video games keeping more young men
But the murder rate last year was higher than at
any point since 1996, based on data from large U.S. cities collected by the crime
analyst Jeff Asher.
While experts are also divided on why murders spiked in 2020 and 2021, there are three broad explanations they typically point to:
The pandemic. Covid disrupted every aspect of
life in the past two years. Social services and supports that help keep crime
down vanished overnight. Schools could no longer keep unruly teens safe and
distracted. A broader sense of disorder and chaos could have fueled a so-called
moral holiday, in which people disregard laws and norms.
A weakness for this theory is timing: The murder
spike took off in May and June 2020, months after Covid began to spread in
the U.S. Other countries didn’t experience similar spikes during the
But that doesn’t rule out the pandemic’s role.
There could have been something specific to America’s pandemic response that
led to more deadly violence, which could have taken months to emerge.
Changes in policing. The fallout from the
2020 racial justice protests and riots could have contributed to the murder
spike. Police officers, scared of being caught in the next viral video, may
have pulled back on proactive anti-violence practices. More of the
public lost confidence in the police, possibly reducing the kind
of cooperation needed to prevent murders. In extreme circumstances, the lack
of confidence in the police could have led some people to take the law into
their own hands — in acts of street or vigilante violence.
The timing supports this theory, with
homicides rising unusually quickly shortly after George
Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests. Killings also spiked in 2015 and
2016, after protests over policing during those years.
More guns. Americans bought many more guns in 2020 and 2021 than they did
in previous years. The guns purchased in 2020 also seemed to be used in crime more quickly than
firearms bought in previous years. And Americans seemed more likely to carry guns illegally in 2020. In
short: Americans had more guns, and were possibly more likely to carry and
Research generally shows that where there are more
guns, there is more gun violence.
These three factors could have also played into
each other. The pandemic might have driven more people to violence, but the
police might have been able to prevent at least some of that violence if they
had remained proactive or had worked better with the public. Without so many
guns, what violence did occur could have ended up less deadly.
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