2020 saw a spike in violent crime and gun sales. Are they connected?

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Official numbers aren’t available from the FBI yet but there’s reason to think 2020 is going to be a banner year in terms of violent crime, especially murder which is up dramatically in most American cities. The rate still isn’t as high as it was at its peak around 1992. Violent crime has been dropping around the country since then. But when the numbers finally do come in it’s very likely 2020 will set a record for the biggest one-year jump in the murder rate in recent history.

One of the big questions being asked about this is why? Some experts looking at the data blame the poor economy caused by the pandemic. The suggestion is that people who are out of work are desperate to survive and are turning to violence. In fact, the last story I wrote today featured a Seattle City Councilmember making exactly that claim. But that’s only one possible explanation. Today the economist published a piece about the rising murder rate and looked at some of the other explanations being offered:

Violence really picked up in late spring, after the pandemic took hold, the economy slumped and, especially, after the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, an African-American man, in late May. Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri, in St Louis, points to a simultaneous “abrupt increase” in killings across cities. National rather than local factors evidently drove the murder rate last year.

Harder to trace is exactly why this happened. Did protests against police violence lead to forces pulling back, which in turn led to more murders? Did temporary reductions in jail populations in the early weeks of the pandemic allow newly released men to commit crimes? Did school closures push up crime, as they do in the summer holidays? Why did property crime slump last year, whereas violence soared?

The idea of police pulling back is often referred to as the Ferguson Effect because we saw something similar happen after the killing of Mike Brown in 2014. Then too there was a widespread rise in violent crime which was blamed on police pulling back. But there are other possibilities, such as the surge in gun sales. The Economist points out that 2020 was also a record year for gun sales and suggests that increased access to firearms could be partly responsible for he rise in shootings.

The Washington Post published a story today about the record gun sales last year. The Post points out the surge in sales also happened around the same time as the surge in crime noted above:

Purchases soared in March and April as the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus led to food shortages, empty streets and millions of lost jobs. Then firearm sales peaked in July, in the weeks after massive protests against police brutality spread throughout the nation…

“It’s been crazy all year,” said Steven Schneider, owner of Atlantic Guns in Rockville, Md. “If it’s not covid, it’s riots or ‘defund the police.’ It’s all personal protection and a lot of new customers.”

It’s a familiar pattern. When people are worried about their own security they buy more guns. 2020 created a lot of moments to be afraid. Looking back at the Economist story, Prof. Richard Rosenfeld offers one other explanation for the spike in violence. He argues that the killing of George Floyd “widens the space for so-called street justice.”

What’s interesting to me is the possibility that the rise in gun sales and the rise in violent crime happened at the same time for a reason. For people buying guns, the clear concern was that the chaos they are seeing on TV would reach their neighborhood.

Cherie Dercqu, who owns a nail salon in suburban Pittsburgh, never owned a gun until last year. On Thursday, she bought her 11th firearm, a shotgun she plans to keep behind the front door of her home.

Dercqu, who said she spent her first stimulus check on guns, now packs a pistol in her purse and keeps another behind the cash register at her shop. She has been going to a range every couple of weeks to practice shooting and said she and her partner intend to keep buying firearms.

“Until this passes, we are buying guns,” Dercqu, 52, said. “We’re buying ammo, and we’re buying as much as we can. We’re two women. We don’t have a guy at home. I don’t want to feel vulnerable without anything.”

Cherie Dercqu isn’t looking to hurt anyone but she’s preparing for chaos if it comes. For the people committing violent crimes in Chicago or LA, they’ve already crossed that line. They see “street justice” as the only option to settle disputes because they’ve lost faith in the system.

In sum, if you don’t believe police will keep you safe from rioters you might buy a gun and if you don’t believe police will get the person who shot your friend or family member, you might use one. In both cases a lack of faith in authorities is driving these trends.

Obviously buying guns is legal and “street justice” is not. I’m not suggesting these are comparable in a legal or moral sense. The people committing crimes are wrong to do so and wrong to give up on the police in my opinion. In fact, they are adding to the sense of chaos and insecurity the rest of us are feeling.

Still, it would be better if we increased the amount of faith in institutions across the board so that people like Dercqu didn’t worry chaos could be just around the corner and people in cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, etc. weren’t convinced chaos was already here. How we do that is another matter. Personally, I don’t think “defund the police” is going to get us there. In fact, I think it’s likely to make that sense of insecurity worse.





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