The Intercept has a comprehensive but digestible article examining the data, and potential theories, around the unexpected homicide increase in 2020. Was it because of pandemic isolation or depression? Was it desperation, caused by unemployment? Was it the ongoing protests for racial equality, and the pushback against overzealous policing? Was it political unrest, fueled by pundit rhetoric? Was it the overall increase of gun sales across the country?
The answer to all of these is a clear and resounding: "Sure, maybe in some places, kind of. Or not."
Any explanation for the national spike in homicides in 2020 needs to account for why most U.S. cities saw an increase, and the available evidence suggests that we should avoid simplistic or local explanations to explain what was almost certainly a complex national phenomena. Murders were up at least 15 percent through September in cities of every population group, according to the FBI's data, and the change in murders was larger in towns with under 10,000 people (up 31 percent) than in cities with over 1 million people (up 29 percent). Murders rose dramatically in big cities like New York and Chicago, but smaller cities like Lubbock, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana, also recorded their highest murder counts in decades.The available evidence suggests that we should avoid simplistic or local explanations to explain what was almost certainly a complex national phenomena.
"It likely takes more than one factor to create a spike of this size. That means it wasn't just the pandemic, or police violence, or more guns, it was all of these things happening simultaneously and perhaps more," said Thomas Abt, director of the National Commission on Covid-19 And Criminal Justice and co-author of its report of 2020 crime trends.
In my experience, most people are not comfortable dwelling in these grey areas of uncertainty — they want simple, easy answers, preferably ones that re-confirm their pre-existing biases. What I like about how The Intercept frames this story is that they address all of these different theories behind the homicide increase. They point out places where there's a very clear correlation between each of those causes, and the rise in violence; they also point out other parts of the country where the data clearly refutes any potential connection between the two things. The situation doesn't conform to any binary, hyper-partisan positions, and anyone who tries to use it as leverage to push some political issue is being blatant disingenuous.
This lack of certainty can be undeniably scary, of course — no one likes to face the fact that sometimes, the world is just chaotic. But I think embracing that ambiguity can help us learn how to look at the bigger picture to find our solutions, instead of scapegoating individual things.
What drove the historically large murder spike in 2020? [Rob Arthur and Jeff Asher / The Intercept]
Image: Public Domain via U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Amber Russell