Between the lines

Guns, rage and murder: America’s ‘tsunami of lethal violence’ explained

US murder rate jumped by almost 30% in 2020, shattering record for largest ever annual increase

To say that America had a crime wave last year is not quite accurate, said David A. Graham in The Atlantic (Washington). Annual data released last week by the FBI shows that the country had what one expert calls “a tsunami of lethal violence”.

With more people at home in 2020 owing to the pandemic, property crimes fell 8%. Robberies also decreased, and rape reports fell marginally. Aggravated assault, on the other hand, rose 12%. The big shock, though, was the murder rate: it jumped by almost 30%, shattering the record for the largest ever annual increase, set back in 1968. Some 5,000 more Americans were murdered last year than in 2019, bringing the total body count to 21,570.

There are numerous possible explanations for the rise in homicides, said Radley Balko in The Washington Post. Among the factors could be: increased tensions stemming from the pandemic; lower levels of proactive policing in the wake of the George Floyd protests; a reduction in the “sentinel effect”, owing to fewer potential witnesses being out and about; and changes to sentencing laws.

What is striking, said an editorial in the same paper, is “the undeniable role played by guns”, sales of which also shot up last year in the US. Guns are typically responsible for two-thirds of US homicides; in 2020, it was 77%. And every part of the country – rural as well as urban – was affected. In 1990, New York City and Los Angeles accounted for 13.8% of US murders; in 2020, it was 3.8%.

Americans not only have more guns, they’re also using them “in situations where weaponry once would have been unimaginable”, said Will Bunch in The Philadelphia Inquirer. At a baby shower last month in a suburb of Pittsburgh, a row over who would transport the gifts ended with a father-to-be whipping out his 9mm handgun and firing at his guests, injuring three. There are shootings over high school football games, over parking spaces, over petrol queues. A supermarket clerk in Georgia who asked a customer to put on a mask was recently shot dead.

It’s true that the US’s violent crime rate is around half what it was at its peak years in the early 1990s. But too many people have guns, and too many gun owners are acting on their “unchecked rage”. The US doesn’t have a broader problem with rising crime, “but when people are turning baby showers into firing ranges, we definitely have a gun-violence problem”.

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