Are We in Danger from a Rising Crime Wave?
Between multiple mass shootings, daylight assaults, and news media covering these events in sensationalist fashion, there is no question that crime is a concern on many American minds: 75% of Americans believe crime is increasing in the country, while 88% think violent crime is rising or holding constant in their own local areas. According to available data, however, those perceptions are not quite accurate:
- Overall, crime is actually decreasing. The FBI’s violent crime report for 2021 found that violent crime fell by 1% from 2020.
- Crime rates have been decreasing for years. Non-violent property crime—theft, burglary, etc.—has been falling for the last twenty years, and while the rate of violent crime did increase in 2020, the longer term trend left it lower than it was in the 1990s.
- Murder is one exception. Although murders make up only 0.2% of major crimes annually, the murder rate rose 30% from 2019 to 2020, from approximately five murders for every 100,000 Americans to 6.5 murders per 100,000 citizens. The murder rate rose 44% in 2021 compared to 2019. Seventy five percent of murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm.
While there isn’t enough recent comparative data to fully analyze why this happened, a perfect storm has likely caused the rise in homicides. Economic stress caused by the pandemic, a record high in gun sales in 2020 which meant more people had guns than ever before, and a lack of trust in law enforcement are likely responsible for this increase.
For further insights, consider these important facts from research conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice:
- The pandemic disrupted the economy, the social safety net, and the ability of organizations – including those in public safety – to function optimally or sometimes, at all. Peoples’ lives were upended and threatened by a potentially fatal virus. Mental health issues substantially increased with few options for behavioral health support. These conditions may have played a part in precipitating acts of violence.
- The rate of murders increased in regions regardless of whether they had a progressive or conservative government in place; consequently, criminal reform or differences in how crime was treated do not seem to be a factor in the increase.
- Poor and historically disadvantaged communities bore the brunt of the rise in violence in 2020.
The Role of Guns and Crime
Despite the fact that overall crime is going down, fearful perceptions—along with the recent increase in the murder rate—have tied crime debates into another issue: guns. Claims that crime is rising are followed by arguments both for and against gun control policies. Some believe that fewer guns will result in a lower rate of crime; others believe that armed people deter criminals.
What position do the facts support? Numerous studies conducted over the years have found that an increase in the number of guns present in communities is associated with an increase in the risk of both violence and homicide, including suicide and accidental shootings.
- Research has indicated that making it easier for people to carry guns—such as through concealed carry permits—is not linked to lower crime rates; on the contrary, states that don’t make gun permits easy to acquire have dramatically lower violent crime rates than states that do make permits easily available.
- Gun ownership is not necessarily linked to safety—researchers have found that very few people who own guns have actually used them for self-defense in criminal situations, and using guns for self-defense was not found to be any more effective than other options such as calling for help.
Understandable but unjustified fears of crime are threatening to enable policies that could well make those fears a reality. The people who are most vocal about crime are often the ones advocating policies to make guns more accessible, which is just as likely to increase crime rates as check them. Being honest about the nature of our problems is critically important for developing truly effective policy. If we act on unrealistic emotions, we run the real risk of bringing our greatest fears to life.
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