On the 2020 Murder Spike and What This Means for 2021

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 9, 2021
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As millions of vaccinated people emerge from lockdown, returning to shops, bars and restaurants, American life is kicking back into high gear. And in the United States in 2021, that means elected officials and crime experts are bracing for an unusually deadly summer marked by wanton gun violence. 

But the reasons for and locations of the likely surge in shootings, a trend that began before but has accelerated during the pandemic, are more complicated than the effects of lockdowns or traditional seasonal shifts in urban crime patterns. Instead, experts say, everything from a flood of fentanyl and open-air drug markets to surging gun violence in rural areas and small towns could make for a remarkable season of tragedy.


Homicides generally spike every summer, but 2020 saw a spike of shootings and murders that far outpaced even the typical surge. One analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy group, found a 30 percent increase in homicides across 34 U.S. cities compared to 2019, and Jeff Asher, an independent crime analyst, found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities. An analysis of gun-violence data by Everytown, a gun-control advocacy group, suggests 2020 had the highest rate of gun deaths in the last 20 years.

Other types of crime, including rape and robberies, seemed to drop in 2020, likely due in part to stay-at-home orders. But homicides and shootings were already increasing between 2014 and 2019, meaning even a return to 2019 murder levels wouldn’t indicate crime is on a good track. 

“After 2014, shootings went up, and they continued to go up, and they accelerated wildly last year,” said John Roman, a crime researcher with the University of Chicago. “Why is that? We don’t know, but the thinking that it’s suddenly going to stop strikes me as wishful thinking. The best [crime] predictor of what happens this year is what happened last year.”

One challenge in interpreting crime data in general—and making sense of the 2020 surge in particular—is the slow pace at which it is published. National news outlets have run many stories highlighting the murder wave in large U.S. cities, painting a picture of spikes that are unique to those generally liberal, urban areas. “The U.S. saw significant crime rise across major cities in 2020 [a]nd it’s not letting up,” read one CNN headline from April typifying the genre. 

But one reason reporters tend to focus on crime in large cities is because they have the capacity to publish more frequent crime statistics, whereas other smaller towns and rural areas don’t or choose not to. 

The grim reality is that while murder spikes were most pronounced in large cities, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all U.S jurisdictions last year. Preliminary FBI data from nearly 13,000 law enforcement agencies found cities with 25,000 people or less saw 25 percent increases in murder last year, and mid-sized cities had increases ranging from 24-31 percent. Final FBI data will be published in September.

“Even in the suburbs and rural areas it was up 15 percent,” Asher told The Daily Beast. “Crime fell last year in America, but murder rose historically.”

So what are the most plausible explanations? One likely factor is a jump in the number of guns in America, which somehow has gotten even more out of hand. FBI data suggests nearly 40 million guns were sold last year, a 40 percent increase from 2019. New data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found roughly 20 percent of those who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners. 

The research also found 39 percent of American households now own guns, up from 32 percent five years earlier. 

“Gun crime usually occurs between people who know each other, and if you talk to cops, they’ll tell you that there are more than the traditional players who are now carrying guns,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

The research literature is clear, added Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University: more guns mean more gun deaths. Whether that means the huge increase in 2020 gun sales is the best explanation for spiking gun violence is less clear. 

“Honestly we don’t know, though we should know soon,” Webster said, pointing to the forthcoming data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF), which traces crime to specific guns. “Once that data comes out, we’ll be able to see in a fairly direct way: were those gun sales used quickly in crime, or is this just a coincidence.”

Webster said his main concern going forward is that more guns, combined with more guns in public places because states are making it easier to carry firearms legally, coupled with more illegally-carried guns due to a loosely regulated secondary gun market, all increase the chance for violence. “As a public health epidemiologist, basically what that translates to is more exposure to guns, more people in more places with firearms, and even though the vast majority are going to be safe and not harm themselves or others, some portion will,” he said.

The pandemic itself stands as another likely explanation for the increase in shootings and homicides. And, indeed, this overlaps with the increase in gun sales, as purchases spiked in the early months of the pandemic, even before police-violence protests stoked fears of unrest. The pandemic weakened community institutions that experts say typically help deter crime. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and criminologist at Princeton, has said the corresponding disconnection from places like schools and pools and rec centers all help increase the conditions that may lead to violent behavior.

Roman at the University of Chicago, too, has argued that the disruption of routine activities for large numbers of young men in poor areas likely contributed to violence with other young men in similar situations. But he told The Daily Beast that the infusion of federal stimulus funds to state and local governments should help support those institutions and individuals who help keep people from committing crime and being victim to crime, including therapists and social workers, and libraries and pools.

A less plausible explanation for the rise in homicides, though one that gets quite a bit of airtime on cable news, is the so-called de-policing theory, which suggests police have scaled back their work in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Dating to at least 2014, the suggestion has been that police are either doing their jobs less well because of low morale from being criticized, or simply being less proactive in the field out of fear of discipline or even criminal punishment. Some pundits have pointed to cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw stark increases in homicides last year, as evidence that activist pressure to “defund the police” is driving the murder surge.

But even some law-enforcement leaders acknowledge the weaknesses of the defund theory.

Laura Cooper, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police executives in the U.S. and Canada, told The Daily Beast that the defund the police movement “has not been pervasive” across their membership cities. And, she noted, “in a lot of places, they’ve actually increased police budgets.” Cooper added their data shows violent crime has increased, even in the first quarter of 2021, regardless of whether cities increased or decreased their police budgets. 

That’s not to say tensions with the police have had no relationship to crime levels. If police are perceived as illegitimate, then community members tend to be less likely to cooperate or assist cops in investigations. “If you ask police chiefs what will make a difference, they will tell you that the most important thing is regaining public trust with the community,” said Wexler. “It sounds sort of fuzzy, but it’s not.”


One likely explanation for 2020 gun violence that gets less airtime is the opioid crisis and the corresponding explosion of open-air drug markets. Preliminary CDC data suggests more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 29 percent increase from 2019. Black Americans were disproportionately affected, and the drug overdoses were driven largely by fentanyl and other opioids.

Roman said the fentanyl crisis could help explain some of the geographic spillover in shootings and homicides we’re seeing. “Open-air drug markets are the ultimate recipe for violence,” he said. “You have dealers fighting over customers, customers fighting with dealers, wholesale networks on top of that competing for market share. New beefs, turf wars, gangs.”

Roman thinks one reason politicians focus less on opioids is because it’s just a massive problem that defies demographic realities, and has no obvious solution. “But it’s pretty myopic,” he said. “We have this huge [opioid] problem we all know about it. And we’ve decided it isn’t related to this other murder problem that takes place in the exact same space.”

Webster of Johns Hopkins agrees the role of drugs and illegal drug markets is “an under-examined” factor. 

“The increase that we’re seeing in overdose deaths really is a signal that obviously drug markets are very active places,” he said. “So I actually suspect that there is a connection, though what we do about is a far more challenging question.” Webster believes drug markets are a less-studied factor because they’re just harder to measure, and “we get too comfortable” with other explanations, like policing and anger over it. 

The first few months of 2021 have shown few signs of improvement in terms of shootings and homicides. One analysis from Asher of 37 cities suggested murders were up 18 percent over the same period last year, and gun sales have continued apace

As the public and elected officials grapple with these and forthcoming crime statistics, there will be a familiar pressure to respond by increasing police budgets, even though policing is more of an indirect response to violence. Indeed, in the New York City mayoral race, three leading candidates have all backed more resources for cops even as rivals call for the NYPD to be defunded. 

But if spending more on police can have a marginal benefit in crime reduction, as the country learned from its largest protest wave in history, it can also help provoke backlash and long-term community harm. 

“I think the story is pretty simple and we make it pretty complicated,” said Roman. “The reason you get a gun is because you’re afraid of someone using that gun against you. What we can do is change how fearful people are of other people with guns. That’s really the only way out. It’s the difficult path, and it’s not clear how much of that runs through traditional policing.” 

Why Focusing on Mass Shootings Won’t End Gun Violence in America

Originally published in VICE on October 12, 2015.
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Earlier this month, a 26-year-old student at an Oregon community college fatally shot nine people and injured nine others on campus. Soon after, the shooter killed himself. What came next was a sadly familiar story: The president delivered a national speech, liberal politicians vowed to pass comprehensive gun control, conservative leaders—who are still generally opposed to Medicaid expansion—insisted that mental health care would have prevented the shooting. And of course some Serious Public Figures found ways to shift the conversation away from popular reforms like universal background checks to oddities like arming teachers or how the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if only Jews had more guns.

On Friday, the national news media reported on two more campus shootings, one in Arizona and the other in Texas. But these same outlets paid little or no attention to the two mass shootings that happened in Baltimore this month: On October 10, five people were shot near a strip mall, and several days later, another five people were shot near an elementary school.

This disparity in coverage showcases how a few high-profile shootings can dominate the discourse around gun deaths in harmful ways, as the public focuses on extreme events rather than the everyday tragedy of firearm-related suicides, homicides, and accidents.

“The Oregon shootings fit a pattern of gun violence that still shocks us… mainstream, middle class America can picture itself in a community college classroom in Oregon or in a movie theater in Colorado or an elementary school in Connecticut,” wrote the Baltimore Sun editorial board. “But when it happens on a street corner in Baltimore, we—even many of us who live here—are conditioned to gloss over it. The idea that these are things that happened to someone else, maybe even to someone who had it coming, has by now become so deeply ingrained in us.”

Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced database project started in 2013, reports that there have been nine mass shootings in Baltimore in 2015, 13 in Chicago, six in Detroit, five in St. Louis, three in Los Angeles, and four in Philadelphia. The database defines “mass shooting” as any instance where four or more people are shot in one event. (Other organizations define mass shootings as instances where there have been at least four fatalities, building off the FBI’s definition of “mass murder.”)

Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun control advocacy group CeasefirePA, says it can be especially difficult for families living in crime-ridden urban communities to have their experiences go overlooked or underreported. “The gun violence they experience gets written about on the back pages of the paper, or Section B, and it’s just a couple of lines, but for those families, their lives have been irrevocably changed and devastated,” she tells VICE.

Goodman adds that she believes the mass shootings which draw national attention serve as important “teaching moments” and have helped to engage those who aren’t living directly in impacted communities. “I think people do get drawn in for different reasons, which is good, but we have to be very mindful that we are working in all parts of the country, be it cities, suburbs, rural areas—gun violence really is an American problem.”

For public policy experts, though, the fact that national discussions around gun violence seem to reawaken only after mass shootings—not counting those in urban cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, of course—is incredibly frustrating. Tens of thousands of people die in America every year from gunfire, homicide, and suicide, and mass shootings are responsible for just a fraction of those deaths.

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that the sort of mass shootings that make headlines are statistical aberrations. Many of these cases seem to involved young, mentally ill, isolated white men who unleash their rage on random civilians. But a study published this year in the American Journal of Public Health found that “surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes.” The study cites past research showing about 85 percent of shootings occur within social networks, and that just 3 to 5 percent involve mentally ill shooters. As co-authors Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish put it, “People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies, or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths.”

Which begs the question: If mentally-ill loners aren’t the only problem, and mass shootings aren’t the cause of most gun deaths, how can this plague of violence be addressed?

“Can gun laws address mass shootings? Honestly, we don’t have the best data to answer that in a definitive, scientific way,” says Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Such shootings occur too infrequently to allow for sound statistical modeling. “But the only time we talk about gun policy is with mass shootings. We ask, ‘Could this have prevented the Oregon shooter?’ That’s perhaps an interesting question we could ponder, but how relevant is that to the 33,000 killed and another 75,000 treated with gunfire every year?”

While Webster and other experts tend to agree that expanding access to mental health care is an important public health imperative, to say that doing so would dramatically reduce gun violence is not consistent with the evidence.

For Webster, a more relevant question is how could we move to pass expanded background checks on gun sales—a policy that 85 percent of Americans support, including 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans. “Ben Carson and all the Republican candidates are talking about this issue in a way that’s totally disconnected to the much, much larger problem of gun violence,” Webster adds, referring to Carson’s claim that Nazi gun control laws paved the way for the genocide of Europe’s Jews. “For those who don’t want to anger the gun lobby, they change the subject.”

In other words, every time Americans talk about taking away guns from the public, or loopy proposals like arming ordinary people to prevent mass tragedies, they lose focus on legit proposals that might enjoy bipartisan support.

Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who focuses on drug abuse and crime control policy, says he, too, has grown impatient with the gun control debate, “because it ignores all the ways not related to guns specifically that we can reduce gun violence.” What nearly half of all homicides do share, Kleiman argues, is that those who are under the influence of alcohol commit them. And research finds that the risk of homicide, suicide, and violent death significantly increases with chronic heavy drinking.

To reduce annual homicides, Kleiman supports increasing the tax on alcohol, as intoxication has proven to be a much greater risk factor for gun violence than mental illness. Heavy drinkers, who are particularly prone to violence, consume more than four out of five alcoholic drinks. Doubling the alcohol tax, Kleiman says, could reduce annual murders by 3 percent. Tripling it, which would cost the median drinker less than 20 cents a day, could reduce it by 6 percent. “That’s 800 annual homicides we just wouldn’t have,” Kleiman says.

While Obama pushed for increased funding for gun research after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, there are still huge gaps in data about guns deaths. A ban on federally funded research into firearms, pushed by the NRA in 1996, has greatly limited the amount of studies conducted around guns over the past two decades. The ban had a chilling effect on not only state and federal agencies, but also academic researchers. The Washington Post reported in January that many private nonprofits have also avoided funding gun-related research proposals.

I asked Kleiman if he thought we’ve made any progress in the national debate since Sandy Hook in December 2012. “No, I don’t think anything has changed,” he said. “This is not an issue that will break through the polarization. Being in favor of gun control is a blue issue, and being against it is red.”

Kleiman says Democrats should focus all their political energy on passing universal background checks, and quit focusing on policies that “fetishize” guns like assault weapon bans. The president is reportedly exploring how he could pass more gun control reforms through executive action, but his options seem limited.

“An outright ban on guns is not politically possible and it’s not constitutionally possible,” says Webster. “Talking about disarming an entire population is nonsense. Let’s talk about the actual issue.”