A historic rise in homicides in 2020—and continued bloodshed in 2021—has incited fears that after years of plummeting crime rates, the U.S. could be headed back to the bad old days, when a crime wave gripped the country from the 1970s to the 1990s.
But the FBI’s “Uniform Crime Report” for 2020, released Monday, suggests something stranger: Perhaps America is in the midst of what is specifically a violence wave, not a broad crime wave. Even as violent crime rose, led by significant jumps in murders and aggravated assaults, property crime continued a years-long decline.
“There was no crime wave—there was a tsunami of lethal violence, and that’s it,” Philip Cook, a crime expert at Duke University, wrote to me in an email.
The murder rate rose by nearly 30 percent, the largest increase on record. There were about 21,500 murders, or 6.5 per 100,000 people. Aggravated assault, the most common form of violent crime, rose 12 percent. Among other components of the violent-crime rate, robbery actually decreased and rape reports were flat. But property crimes overall fell 8 percent, led by drops in burglary and larceny—though motor-vehicle theft increased.
This kind of divergence is very unusual, especially given how much violent crime rose. On the most basic level, the culprits for the strange year in statistics are clear: guns, the coronavirus, and protests. Big changes in the crime rate correlate with the start of the pandemic and major protests after the murder of George Floyd, as I noted last week, but figuring out how these factors work and how they are entangled with one another is difficult and perhaps impossible.
Some logical surmises exist for why the pandemic would have driven down property crime. More people were at home in 2020, and burglars generally avoid occupied houses, hence the drop in burglaries. That might also explain why robberies, a violent crime, sank—if fewer people are on the street and many businesses are closed, a would-be robber has fewer opportunities—but vehicle thefts, a property crime, rose, because cars were left on streets rather than being driven to work. Yet if the pandemic helped depress property crime, the result follows a years-long trend. Since a recent peak in 1991, overall property-crime rates rose only once.
How the pandemic and last summer’s protests connect to the rise in violence is more complicated. The stress and strain of the pandemic on citizens—lost jobs, sick relatives, being forced into close quarters—could increase a propensity for violence. Many government and nongovernment programs that create diversions from conflict were closed, including formal education, after-school curricula, and violence-interruption programs. Law-enforcement officers were social distancing and policing less directly.
An increase in murders in many cities also corresponds closely to protests over the summer of 2020, though experts aren’t sure why. One theory is that police who were busy patrolling some of the largest protests in American history were not patrolling other streets. Officers also may have pulled back from policing, either as a counterprotest or as an attempt to respond to political pressures. Attention to police violence against citizens can delegitimize police in the public’s eyes, which could lead to people being more inclined to take justice into their own hands, or simply not to report crimes they witnessed. Historically, violent crime and property crime have moved in concert, but they previously diverged in 2015 and 2016, following an earlier round of widespread protests after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri.
One factor in the shocking increase in violence is very clear: “The rise in violence in 2020 appears to be almost entirely a rise in gun violence, rather than a more general increase in all forms of crime,” the Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey wrote to me in an email.
In an average year, guns account for roughly two-thirds of American homicides, but in 2020, 77 percent of murders were shootings. More Americans are carrying guns, both legally and illegally, than they have in the past. Firearms sales shot up last year, and so did police retrievals of illegal guns.
“You can ask law-abiding people or you can ask people who do not abide by the law, ‘Why are you armed with a firearm?’ ‘I need to protect myself,’” says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. That creates a vicious cycle: More people carrying guns tends to result in more shootings, which in turn heightens the desire to carry a weapon for protection. When crime is decreasing, this dynamic helps it continue to fall, but once it begins to rise, the feedback loop turns ugly. Several analyses have found that murders have continued to rise this year, though not as sharply as last year.
The FBI numbers could be wrong. Homicide statistics are very reliable because the crime produces a body or a missing person, but other categories are hazier because they rely on reports. People might fail to report crimes for various reasons: Maybe they are distrustful of the police because of cases like Floyd’s murder; maybe they see enough crime going unsolved in their neighborhood that they conclude it’s pointless to call the cops. In 2020, reports of drug crimes dropped sharply, even as overdoses reached a record of more than 93,000—suggesting that drug arrests, not use, had changed. This challenge is compounded by an overhaul of how the FBI gathers its numbers. One state crime-data official told The Washington Post that the country would have dependable data “in five or six years,” not an especially encouraging prediction.
Because the rates of many crimes fell in 2020 and because murder rates remain well below their early-’90s peak, some observers have downplayed last year’s statistics. Often, warnings not to overinterpret the numbers come from advocates for worthy and necessary causes such as police reform and decarceration.
“It’s disingenuous in the face of a historic 30 percent rise in homicide to say that overall crime is down, simply because the majority of crime is low-level misdemeanors,” Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and a former Justice Department official, told me. “That does not capture the lived experience of the people who are impacted.”
Thinking about the problem facing the country as a violence wave rather than a crime wave might help sidestep that dilemma, though. It doesn’t overhype the statistical evidence to suggest a widespread crime wave, in a way that might panic the public and encourage heavy-handed and unjust backlash, nor does it downplay the seriousness of violence in some communities.