We Don’t Know Why Murder Rates Spiked in 2020

In 2020, murder rates were big news. After two years with falling murder rates, the country saw an almost 30 percent national increase in 2019. The figure was revealed by 2020 murder numbers. America had more than 21,000 homicides. It’s an average of 57 per day with 77% committed with firearms. It’s an alarmingly high rate of homicide, perhaps the most in over 100 years. These figures show that America has returned to 7.8 per capita murder rates, a level not reached since 1998, following a few decades of generally good news regarding changes in the murder rate.

It isn’t limited to specific parts or states of the country that has seen an increase in murder rates. The murder rates in cities from Portland to Austin and Salt Lake City to New York City, Milwaukee to Milwaukee, Chicago or Los Angeles saw significant increases that were higher than the average national rate. Large and small cities saw large increases in their murder rates. Every region experienced at least 20 percent increase, regardless of whether it was red or white.

Although 2021’s FBI figures are still many months away, there is already a lot of negative news. The past year has seen more murders than in 2020. However, the rise in crime will likely to be much smaller. In 2021, at least 12 cities including Philadelphia, Columbus and Albuquerque will break the homicide record.

It is difficult for sober and productive policy-making to be possible when there is sudden, substantial degeneration in the social outcomes people are angry at. The heart of lawful civilisation’s purpose is slashed by murder. It causes personal pain that cannot be matched.

As expected, there were many examples of pundits and politicians using the crisis to point in the right direction during the 2021 discussion about murder rates.

People who think that tougher and more effective law enforcement are key to reducing murder rates insist that it is obvious whether there was anti-police sentiment in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death or a cold reduction in activity or resources.

No matter how people feel about police and their conduct, the other measures of crime either increased or decreased (5.6% increase in 2020 for overall violent crimes versus 2019), or both (property crime down 8 percent; robbery fell 9 percent; rape, down 12 percent). The long-term association of crime and police spending, whether positive or detrimental, has been inconsistently found by analysts.

In the debate about crime, a lack of necessary granularity has been a frequent mistake. It is difficult to determine if spending has any direct relationship to police effectiveness at reducing crime. You can see cities like Chicago or St. Louis with higher murder rates and cops who seem less involved in stopping and arresting criminals. Intuitively, it is much easier to understand the influence of police activity on the murder rate than other measures such as officers on staff, number of arrests and total cost of policing.

However, this isn’t a consistent and well-documented pattern that makes recent decreased or poorly-directed policing the predominant explanation for murder rates. There are other factors. It seems possible to see poorer relations between police and citizens after the Flood. This could have an effect on both sides: less proactive cops, less willingness to work with police officers, and more mistrust. Although many criminologists agree that more police officers are enough to stop crime and murders in the future, it seems like their abilities to solve homicides has been declining. In 2020, only 54% of murders resulted in an arrest or conviction of a suspect. This is down from 61% the previous year.

Some law-and-order professionals wonder whether recent reforms in criminal justice reform have encouraged criminals. For example, looser bail requirements or elimination of them are examples. The FBI does not have a dataset that can tell us the number of murders committed by recidivists and those on bail. It is impossible to know what impact those changes might have in particular areas. New York City preliminary data shows that less than one percent of people on bail were indicted with violent felonies last year. But, as a total, this number is around 250. It might sound significant, even to their victims. But, one person was actually rearrested in a shooting.

There are even reasons to believe some practices, which are intentionally less harsh on crime than others, will limit future criminal acts. These include easing or eliminating pre-trial detention and keeping inmates who have been convicted outa prison. Not only are criminal justice conservatives concerned that prosecutors have been too progressive, but they also seem to be linked with rising murder rates in areas where there is no such prosecutor.

Conservatives will blame weakening policing. Gun-haters and those who want to limit access to guns point to the historical record of almost 40 million gun-sale background check (best proxy for new firearm purchases), in 2020. This was also accompanied by a huge rise in the murder rate. Can they be connected?

In the past decade, we have seen an increase in gun sales without seeing an increase in crime. It is not clear if “more Americans buy guns” has an effect on the “higher rate of Americans being killed.”

Beyond the fact that there is a causal link between increased gun sales in 2020 and more murders, it seems that this year’s 2021 paper was responsible. Epidemiology of InjuryStephen Gutowski summarised it all at Gun Policy News and Comment Site The Reload, “found no association between gun sales and gun violence….At the state level, the magnitude of the increase in purchasing was not associated with the magnitude of the increase in firearm violence.” Robert VerBruggen, stats-savvy author National ReviewWe also checked gun sales and homicides at the state level and discovered that there was no apparent connection. The same picture can be drawn when plotting the data. PercentageChange in one variable versus the percentage change the other.”

The idea of tying one year’s gun-sales (all law-abiding citizens must remember that they passed the background check), to the number of murders in that same year is also questionable. This is because we know that the average interval between gun sales and gun use in crime takes over eight years. The most recent data suggests that very few criminals purchase their guns legally from a shop with a background check. FiveThirtyEight analysts are happy to report that “time to criminality” for guns is decreasing in 2020. 68,000 guns were taken by police after less than one year. Yet, even though this may seem alarming, cops took a smaller percentage of guns than they sold, from slightly less than 0.3% to slightly more. Cops also confiscated guns within a shorter time period.

If you want to increase the number of gun-related murders, those who are interested in making it happen have to be more precise. Although it is concerning to note the disconcerting number of journalists who believe that more guns and more murders can be connected by criminologists, they need to know more.

VoxIt is certain that there are more complex reasons than increased gun sales for the rise in murder rates. The report showed that police stopped finding firearms on citizens’ bodies more frequently in 2020 than the previous year. In many cities, this was despite the fact that there were fewer people being locked down in urban areas at the time. However, the total number of guns discovered on individuals increased. Assuming, Vox quotes Jens Ludwig of University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, police have not “become dramatically better at figuring who is illegally carrying a gun…the implication is that lots more people are carrying guns illegally in Chicago.” Similar patterns were found in Los Angeles and Tucson, as well as Chicago. They will continue to observe this pattern until 2020.

As Gutowski said ReloadIn an interview with me, I pointed out that there could be a correlation between the number of people being searched by police and their increased use of force. While the public might be more aware of situational risk, it doesn’t necessarily make them criminals. Gutowski believes it is possible, considering that those who are available for police search in 2020 lockdown might be more likely to have lawbreaking tendencies. This means that the police, contrary to Ludwig, had gotten better at finding people most likely to break the law using illegal weapons.

It doesn’t make you a criminal just because you carry a gun. Understanding the context of the homicides in the country is more difficult than it seems. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program does try to break down at least some homicides based on circumstances—for some examples, 5 percent are known to be gang-related, 3 percent related to “narcotic drug laws,” and 3 percent in robberies or burglaries. However, more than half of all homicides were committed by people who are not familiar with the details.

It’s difficult to know what reasonable and effective action can be taken, even if it is clearer that people carry guns more often in public places and cause more impulsive crimes. As this analysis shows, “getting more firearms off the streets” is not a solution to decreasing murder rates. Any policy that involves “stopping and harassing more minorities on street corners under conditions where cops fear they might be packing” is one we need to reconsider.

National or even state-level changes are a matter of public policy. Even if we know how to use policing effectively to decrease murders and not exaggerate the negative side of citizen/police interaction, this lacks the necessary granularity that crime debates often lack. Different Americans are affected by crime and murder in a variety of ways. For example, higher poverty areas have seen their shooting rate double over the last seven years. The social phenomenon of murder can often be very tightly knit. John Pfaff (law professor) is the author. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real ReformNot noted in The New RepublicChicago found that “cycles in retaliation or counterretaliation” were often responsible for three to six shootings, sometimes sixty, and once every 500 shootings that followed over the years.

It is true that Criminologists find it much more instructive, according to a 2010 article in The Journal of Quantitative Criminology, to consider not national figures or trends but “places as small as single addresses, group of addresses, face blocks or street blocks…crime is strongly concentrated at a small group of ‘micro’ places. Studies that have been done over many years show that crime concentrations in micro areas are relatively steady. A Chicago researcher who studied non-fatal gunshots from 2006 through 2014 found that over 70% of victims of gun violence were located within networks with less than 5% population.

The overwhelming amount of analysis and commentary on this complex social issue has led to the conclusion that the reason why murder rates have risen so dramatically in the United States is not clear. It is impossible to attribute the entire increase in murders to one cause like guns and policing.

It should come as no surprise. It is still a puzzle to many that the profession has not yet figured out the reason for the dramatic decline in crime and murder rates over the period from the mid-’90s to late 2010. The inherent problems in the profession, which journalist Adam Gopnik summarised in 2018 The New Yorker“In this field, you study actions of many million autonomous agents that can change their actions at a moment’s notice, with many thousand outliers which are guaranteed to be unusually bizarre.” Although there is unfortunately more murderers, they are bizarrely uncommon in America’s social scene.

Answers such as “COVID-19 and riots” seem appealing—why not explain a shocking new social outcome with those two shocking additions to the modern American scene in 2020? Whether or not they hold explanatory water—the rates across various cities did not, researcher David Abrams found, seem to march in reasonably causal lockstep with either lockdowns or protests/riots—they provide little useful policy information other than “avoid plagues (or overreacting to same) and riots,” lessons important irrespective of murder rates.

There are a few theories floating around, including the possibility that there were fewer witnesses who saw murders during lockdowns. This could encourage more criminals. Although the FBI data does not provide any answers to this question, they show that 19% of crimes are committed on streets, sidewalks or alleyways. Over 51 percent of murders occur in private homes. As with so much information about crime rate fluctuations, you have to guess what will fit your sense of plausible.

This is why murder rates are rising. It’s rooted in terrible decisions by a tiny percentage of people. The fact that there is limited information and the nature of the phenomena make it difficult to determine causes. It pays to be skeptical when alleged economic or social forces that act on millions of people “cause” small numbers of choices. It pays to be cautious when suggestions for solutions include generating reasons for police and citizens to encounter each other on the streets.