Examining the Spike in Murders

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.

Those murders resulted in the deaths of thousands more Americans, and returned the U.S. to homicide rates not seen since the mid-1990s. (While murders and violent crime overall are up, other crimes are down.)

The effects are felt unequally across the country. Shootings are historically concentrated in impoverished, minority communities. In a typical U.S. city, a small segment of neighborhoods account for most of the violence.

Most homicide victims are Black. And Black Americans were eight times as likely to be murder victims in 2020 as their white counterparts.

In the hardest-hit communities, gun violence is so common that it’s become a part of life. “I hear gunshots every day,” Angela Hernandez-Sutton, who lives on Chicago’s West Side, told The Sun-Times. “I just listen to hear where they’re coming from, then move to the front or the back of the house.”

Such daily experiences have gotten relatively little national attention. Anna Harvey, a public safety researcher at New York University, told me the concentration of violence probably explains why. White and affluent Americans have been less directly affected by the murder spike, but they’re also more likely to influence what news outlets cover and what politicians talk about.

The violence remains a grave example of racial inequality in the U.S. We have real solutions, with strong evidence, to deal with the problem, experts said. But those solutions need support from the public and lawmakers to go anywhere.

From 1991 to 2014, America’s murder rate plummeted by more than half. 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 occupied.

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 pandemic.

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 use them.

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.

“All three played a role,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told me. “What’s difficult is to assign priority to one compared to the others.”

I plan to write more about the potential solutions to violence in future newsletters. But I will outline a few here. Some are short-term fixes while others are for the long term.

In the short term, there’s solid evidence for policing — specifically, more focused policing, targeting the people and places most likely to be violent. With some of these strategies, the police work with other social services to lift violent perpetrators out of that life.

“I’m as much a reformer as anybody, but the short-term solutions around high violence are mainly punitive,” John Roman, a researcher at the University of Chicago, told me. “There’s no getting around that.”

In the long term, experts support a range of solutions that enrich both individuals’ and communities’ socioeconomic standing over time; they include preschool programs, summer job initiatives, raising the school dropout age, greening of vacant lots, more streetlights and expanded drug treatment. There’s also good evidence for gun control and higher alcohol taxes.

The short-term and long-term categories aren’t in conflict — and can complement each other. Both are likely necessary to reverse the murder spike and prevent future increases.

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Mainstream films and TV often paint motherhood in broad strokes. A mother is either endlessly devoted to her children, or her absence serves as fodder for a protagonist’s origin story, as Amanda Hess writes in The Times. But more productions are now challenging those notions with complex portrayals.

In “The Lost Daughter,” Leda (played by Olivia Colman), an academic, leaves her young daughters to pursue her career, as many deadbeat fathers have done before her. “Children are a crushing responsibility,” she tells a pregnant character. Yet the movie reserves judgment and depicts Leda as a human being, not a monster. “We can dislike her, but we are never permitted to revile her,” Jeannette Catsoulis writes in a review.

There’s also Penélope Cruz’s character, in “Parallel Mothers,” a pregnant 40-year-old woman who befriends a teenage mother-to-be and makes an immoral decision about their newborns. “Instead of reassuring audiences that mommy is always a bastion of safety, these filmmakers have created mother heroines who are unpredictable, erratic and even a little bit frightening,” Emily Gould writes in Vanity Fair.

Even the “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That …” is part of the trend. At one point, Miranda — a mother to a hormonal teenager — tells a character who is considering having children that there are many nights she wishes to “go home to an empty house.”

These works, Gould writes, “present their mothers as full human beings, even when their needs are structurally opposed to those of their children.” — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer

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