Why are murders in the U.S. up 30% in one year?

Nearly 5,000 more people were murdered in the United States in 2020 than in 2019. A 30% jump in just one year, the biggest rise since the country started keeping track six decades ago. It’s still a far cry from the worst days of the 1990s, when the total number of homicides was still 30% higher, but it’s impossible not to wonder why this is happening. There are many answers, and almost all of them are partly right.

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One of the main explanations for this extraordinary spike in murders is that 2020 was an extraordinary year indeed, the year of the pandemic. With the confinements, much crime in general dropped substantially: burglaries, for example, fell by almost 8%, probably because it’s harder to steal when everyone is tucked up at home. However, it was clear from the start that homicides were going to go in the opposite direction.

First there are the economic effects of the pandemic. Some studies have detailed all the ways in which a bad economy drives up the number of violent crimes and the list is a 2020 description: unemployment, falling GDP, rising poverty… but in addition COVID-19 brought a general worsening of mental health in America and made it harder to get professional care. That stress and lack of patience we all see is also reflected in the crime statistics, where the most common cause of a homicide in 2020 was an argument that started over an insult.

Guns, politicians and cops

Everyone more or less agrees on the effects of the pandemic on the rise in murders, but the political debate is going down other paths. The Democrats are talking about limiting the right to carry pistols and rifles, since in 2020 the percentage of murders committed with firearms rose ten points, already more than 75%. The Republicans, for their part, will use an electoral argument that has rarely failed them: what is needed is a tougher hand and more police. The two sidesThey have some data in their favor, but also some against.

It is true that 2020 was a record-breaking year for gun sales in the United States. Instability is the best ally of this business and there was a lot of it: the pandemic, the post-election chaos, the massive demonstrations… Researchers have shown that there is a relationship between gun ownership and the number of homicides, but it is not clear that it manifests itself immediately after the purchase, only later. So, as much as the Democrats would like, the increase in gun sales does not explain the spike in murders in 2020.

Republicans have their alternative explanation. They say that movements against police racism have led police to be “afraid to act” and that this is the key to the rise in violent crime. It is true that there are studies that point to a rise in homicides in cities where such protests have been most active, but when conservatives attack the “soft” policies of big cities (almost always governed by Democrats) that’s where their argument falls flat.

The increase in homicides has been national, not focused on the big cities, which are still a far cry from the death tolls of their worst days. In 1990 New York and Los Angeles together accounted for 13.8% of the murders in the USA and now they account for barely 3.8%. It is true that in just one year New York has seen these crimes rise from 319 to 500, but in 1990 it had 2,200. With these data Trump’s argument of the “chaos of the Democratic cities” does not make much sense.

The political battle is heating up, but the solution to the problem is far from clear. Americans are increasingly concerned about rising crime, but at the same time they don’t think the solution is to put more police on the street, which is precisely what Republicans are advocating. What is certain is that it will be an issue that receives more and more attention because, in addition to the dramatic increase in 2020, so far in 2021 the number of murders committed in the United States continues to rise.

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