What explains the 2020 spike in murders in the United States?

September 30, 2021

Last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation released the most recent crime statistics and it revealed a surprising finding; the number of murders (21,500) which occurred last year (2020) was the highest it has ever been since 1960. Meanwhile, most other crimes, for which data is systematically collected, decreased.

Keep in mind that last year was unique as we were in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were numerous protests across the country, most of which were in support of Defunding or Abolishing the Police, Black Lives Matter, and in reaction to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and other similar deaths of unarmed African-American men and women (e.g., Breonna Taylor) at the hands of police officers.

That being said, I’m not suggesting nor implying that the protests, nor bail reform efforts, caused an increase in homicide. That would be foolish.

But what explains the rise of murder, a type of crime where the statistics are the most reliable?

Here are six possible reasons why this increase might have occurred.

To begin with, there may be more availability of guns on the street. Not only is there data to support the increase in gun sales, but some commentators have suggested that a certain percentage of the population used their stimulus check to purchase guns. Keep in mind that these sales were disproportionately from fearful white middle class people who live in the suburbs.

Alternatively, the guns that were used in homicides may be of better quality. Many of the guns on the street are of low quality, typically used to threaten a potential victim of a robbery and not necessarily because it will be fired. By default, brand new guns, on the other hand, are of better quality.

Additionally, another reason why homicides may have increased in 2020 is that people using the guns have become better skilled at using them. Shooters may have had more time on their hands to improve their ability to use these weapons.

Moreover, the situations in which guns are used may have increased, thus there may have more domestic violence (e.g.., families living in close proximity for longer periods of time), gang activity, including competition for scarce markets.

Another possible reason for the spike in homicides is that first responders, especially EMTs may have been slower to get to gun-shot victims. Why? They were tied up with COVID-19 related patients, and thus the times between dispatch and arrival on the scene may have been slower. Thus, a certain percentage of victims of shootings may have died because of slower response times. A similar situation may have occurred in the emergency departments of our hospitals that were crowded with COVID-19 patients.

Finally, a decrease in trust in the criminal justice system in general, and police in particular to “serve and protect” may have pushed some members of the public to handle their disputes with others on their own and resort to gun violence.

Regardless these are all speculations regarding the increase in the murder rate in 2020. Until we get a better handle on who the shooters and victims are, especially finding out why they decided to pull the trigger, we will probably not really know for sure why there was an increase last year.

Title of photo: Crime Scene Patrol Cars
Photographer: F. Muhammad

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Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D.

Criminologist @ubaltmain #corrections #CrimesofthePowerful #StreetCulture #graffiti #streetart #police Co-founder #ConvictCriminology www.jeffreyianross.com