After decades of
relative calm in terms of the crime rate, such a turn of misfortune begs for
explanation, as does the divergent pattern among the four major categories
of violence. Of course, a surge as large as was reported in killings would
involve several factors, some of which are tied directly or indirectly to
the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent changes in lifestyle.
Most prominent is the
fact that millions of Americans were suddenly out of work or school, thereby
lacking structure in their daily lives. Idleness provided far too many
opportunities for conflict and too much free time. For example, despite
lockdowns, street gangs remained active, resulting in a 62% spike in
Aside from street
battles, much of violent conflict occurred at home, with families forced to
spend hour after hour cloistered together inside. Extended periods of close
contact, boredom and economic hardship often meant little tranquility at
home, as family homicide rose 26%.
The year saw
staggering growth in firearm sales, as some gun owners feared that a
Democratic sweep in Washington would lead to restrictions on their Second
Amendment rights. Others acquired weapons to protect their families out of
concern that shortages in food and supplies might bring desperate intruders
to their doorsteps.
It is not surprising,
therefore, that most of the rise in murder and mayhem on the street and in
the home involved firearms. Gun-related homicides rose 35% in 2020 over
2019, while those involving all other weapons increased only 17%.
Unfortunately, weapons purchased ostensibly to protect family members
sometimes have in fact been used against loved ones, as family-related gun
homicides jumped 34%.
pandemic-related closures and lockdowns that fueled homicide and aggravated
assault helped, to some extent, produce the drops in rape and robbery. With
college campuses, schools, bars, nightclubs and retail businesses shuttered
for much of the year, there were fewer opportunities for certain acts of
violence. Likewise, there were fewer opportunities for commercial burglary
Besides the major
changes in lifestyle, the nation has been experiencing a disturbing shift in
tenor - some, but far from all, related to the pandemic. Arguably, the
schism over a multitude of issues is wider and more rancorous than at any
point since the 1960s dissent over the Vietnam War. In addition to disputes
over mandated lockdowns and masking, the country was divided over the
presidential campaign and the veracity of its outcome as well as race and
policing. These disputes strained relationships among neighbors, friends and
Over the past year,
many politicians and pundits have described the problem of gun violence as
an epidemic, and the spike in gun homicides would appear to validate that
characterization. However, without minimizing the sad fact that there were
4,000 more firearm homicides in 2020 than the year before, it is premature
to suggest this will be a continuing trajectory.
It is likely that the
2020 spike in violence will prove to be a short-term aberration largely
because of the unique impact of the pandemic. While the battles over
politics and social issues may persist for years, there will be a point when
our society gets back to a reasonable degree of normalcy as we gain better
control over the pandemic.
The 2020 murder rate,
although significantly above that of recent years, is a third lower than in
the 1990s, when ruthless competition associated with the crack cocaine trade
drove the murder rate to a near-record level. Eventually, the effect of
crack markets subsided, and the homicide rate rapidly declined. The same
should be true once the nation survives the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the crime
figures for 2021 are incomplete, early indications are positive, or at least
not so negative. Crime reports from various jurisdictions around the country
suggest that the scourge of violence hasn't ended, although the increases
are less pronounced. That is a good sign for slightly better times ahead.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and co-author of "The Will to Kill." Follow him on Twitter@jamesalanfox
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