The US has experienced its largest-ever recorded annual increase in murders, according to new statistics from the FBI, with the national murder rate rising nearly 30% in 2020 – the biggest jump in six decades.
Nearly 5,000 more Americans were murdered across the country last year than the year before, even as rape, robbery, and other property crimes fell, according to FBI figures.
Murder increased in every geographic region, and in small towns and suburban areas as well as large cities. At least 77% of the murders were committed with firearms, according to the new government estimates.
The sharp one-year increase, to a total of at least 21,570 murders, does not erase the nation’s safety gains since the early 1990s. The US murder rate had dropped more than 50% since 1991. Even after last year’s increase, it is still 34% lower.
But the single-year jump in murders, the largest since current record keeping began in 1960, has fueled debate about the broader social effects of the coronavirus pandemic. National statistics show that no other crime category surged to the same extent that murder did: the nation’s overall violent crime rate increased just 5%, according to the data.
While homicides have continued to rise in big cities through the first half of 2021, the rate of increase has slowed, according to the criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, who has been tracking changes in crime throughout the pandemic. A study looking at a subset of 29 US cities through the end of June showed homicide up 16% this year, he said.
Experts who study violence point to multiple factors that might have played a role in the murder increase, from the emotional trauma and economic instability of the pandemic, which fell hardest on communities that were already struggling, to an increase in gun-carrying in public.
Conversations about American crime and violence often focus on victims of color in big cities, but “the FBI data is showing an increase everywhere”, said Shani Buggs, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies community violence prevention.
“It’s urban. It’s rural. It’s Democratic. It’s Republican.”
Law enforcement agencies have reported increases in illegal firearm possession, and there have been anecdotal reports from cities across the country of more guns on the streets, Buggs said.
“What I’m hearing on the ground, from folks in New York, Chicago, Oakland, Louisville, St Louis, is that you have mundane issues that are turning lethal because there is so much anger, and rage, and guns available,” she said.
While handguns remained the most common murder weapon in the US, much about the surge in gun violence in 2020 remains unclear. The circumstances for most of the nation’s more than 21,000 murders are not recorded in the national data released on Monday. More than 4,000 were attributed to arguments, at least 900 to gang killings, and more than 1,900 were committed in the context of other crimes, including robberies and drug crimes. But the largest category is simply “unknown”.
Republicans have responded to the increase in gun violence by leaning into “soft on crime” rhetoric and pushing for more punitive responses, while Joe Biden and other Democrats have focused on Americans’ widespread and easy access to guns. Biden has also proposed a $5bn investment over eight years in scaling up community gun violence prevention strategies, including funding outreach workers and other programs that focus on the small number of people most likely to shoot or be shot, strategies that have shown a strong track record of reducing killings.
The murder increase has also become a key data point in debates over the role of police departments in preventing community violence, particularly after last year’s protests against police killings of Black Americans.
Some advocates said it was important to focus on the fact that 2020’s murder spike was building on a level of violence across the country that was already far from normal.
“It took one pandemic to unveil another pandemic, a more silent pandemic,” said Malik Russell, the director of communications for the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention. “It’s important that the nation as a whole doesn’t miss the forest for the trees, the fact that every year, thousands and thousands of people, disproportionately Black and brown, are being killed on the streets.”
Stark racial disparities in who is most at risk of being murdered continued into 2020: Black Americans, who make up about 14% of the population, represented more than half of the 2020 victims whose race was known. But the number of murders also increased sharply across racial groups. Compared with 2019, the number of white males murdered rose 27%, while the number of Black males murdered rose 31%, according to data on the victims whose race was recorded.
Of the nearly 5,000 additional murder victims in 2020, at least 1,200 were white, while at least 2,400 were Black.
Rosenfeld, the criminologist, said that while murder was the most serious crime, it was also the rarest, which made the continuing decline in US property crimes last year an “important story” that should not be overlooked.
The number of people victimized by property crimes had been on a downward trend for at least two decades, and the pandemic had not changed that, he said, even as homicides spiked.
“We want to address the increase in homicide with remedies that are specific to homicide,” Rosenfeld said. “These broad-based remedies, like ratcheting up years in prison for the commission of a felony – we not only don’t need them, they may do more harm than good.”
In conversations with people working on the front lines of the murder crisis across the country, Buggs said, she consistently heard “people talking about how much trauma exists in the community, and the need for healing and peacemaking”.
“As a country, as a society, we don’t have a great answer to that, but we need to be trying, and innovating, and we need to be taking it seriously,” she said.