Murder rate climbed in 2020, amid gun stockpiling and pandemic pressures

Murders rose nearly 30% nationwide last year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Report data released Monday, which revealed the greatest percentage of  homicides involving guns on record, amid the pandemic’s onset.

Homicides and manslaughter jumped 29.4% from 2019 to 2020, the largest year-to-year spike since the federal government began tracking violent crime in the 1960s. Though well below the peak of U.S. killings in the 1980s and early 1990s, 4,901 additional killings were carried out in 2020, compared to 2019. 

The FBI tabulated more than 21,500 murders last year – a wave that largely corresponds with the coronavirus pandemic’s 18-month course and amounts to about 6.5 per 100,000 people.

“The numbers are very concerning,” Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division Michael Christman told CBS News in an exclusive interview. “Now that we’ve collected those numbers, we want to put a strong analytical effort behind those numbers. And we want to identify trends. I use the word commonalities. Anything we can do to make law enforcement aware or to provide training around those numbers,,” said Christman, who heads up the FBI’s data collection programs.

One common thread the FBI noticed was use of firearms. A whopping 77% of reported homicides in 2020 were committed with a gun, the highest percentage ever reported, up from 74% in 2019. And while there is no federal database of gun purchases, the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks gun-related violence in the United States, recorded 43,559 gun deaths in 2020, compared to 39,538 the year before.

“We have seen a stockpiling of the American public buying guns from the Obama administration through the Trump administration through the Biden administration,” said Everett Penn, professor of criminology at the University of Houston Clear Lake. “We know that these murders are often occurring between people who know each other. Before, it may have been an argument or discussion, maybe even a fistfight. But now, conflict may escalate to the use of guns.”

Although violent crime also rose by 5.6% in 2020, property crimes fell by 7.8%, according to the bureau. Assaults were up by 12%.  

Major cities witnessed an uptick in murder rates, though most hovered below their record-high years. New York City saw approximately 500 murders in 2020, compared to 319 in 2019. Still, both homicide statistics are nowhere near the more than 2,200 murders recorded in 1990. Los Angeles saw 351 murders last year, versus 258 in 2019, well below its record 1,010 murders in 1980. Chicago reported 771 murders last year, up from approximately 500 in 2019, but below the city’s 936 killings in 1992.

The FBI data revealed mid-sized cities, particularly in the Midwest, experienced greater spikes in murders, with Milwaukee and Des Moines reporting their highest homicide count on record.

Law enforcement officials, criminologists and research analysts have been tracking the sudden increase in murders alongside societal transformations marked by a series of flashpoints: the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide shutdowns and debate over police reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in police custody. 

“The pandemic, and in particular, the shutdown we saw in 2020, changed people’s routine activities – how they lived their lives. People weren’t going to school, to work, to training, to church,” John Roman, a Senior Fellow at the University of Chicago’s NORC research institution said. “And what that meant is that places with long histories of violence and trauma were all sitting at home with nothing to do. A lot of old scores got settled and even created new feuds, new beefs..”

For his part, Penn found the COVID-19 shutdown deprived communities of normal social outlets. As executive director of the Teen And Police Service Academy (TAPS), Penn runs a program intent on shrinking the social distance between police and youth — a task made harder by CDC-mandated health guidelines amid the pandemic.

“We work face to face. Our program did not have the oomf, the connectedness it had before,” Penn conceded, though students and officers participated in regular zoom meetings. “Who knows how many issues could have been resolved? Unfortunately, COVID-19 took away from our ability to meet face to face.”

Other studies, including the National Commission for Covid-19 and Criminal Justice or NCCCJ confirmed the FBI’s findings, determining in its own survey of 34 major cities that homicides had risen about 30% between 2019 and 2020.

The Uniform Crime Report represents the most comprehensive look at nationwide crime, although law enforcement agencies are still not required to submit their data to the FBI. A total of 15,875 agencies out of more than 18,000 submitted their data to the FBI in 2020 — roughly 85% participation.

“It’s absolutely critical that we have complete reporting so we can relay a complete picture and see what’s happening across the entire nation,” said Amy Blasher, Unit Chief of Crime and Law Enforcement Statistics Unit. The FBI concedes that the coronavirus pandemic presented barriers to routine data collection, since many state and local governments were forced to work remotely at its onset.

“[The pandemic] was a challenge. We definitely heard that from states early on,” Blasher told CBS News. “But [FBI] resources were always made available, and we worked with our agencies to remove some of those barriers from the beginning.”

Next year, the FBI’s annual report will require even more data from law enforcement agencies. Beginning next year, police departments across the country will be required to submit details on crimes committed, including information on the relationship between offenders and victims, as part of The National Incident Based Reporting System. 

Less than 10,000 agencies reported this data in 2020. Both law enforcement officials and analysts agree the switch to more robust reporting will likely paint a dismal picture of violent crime in the short term, but will lead to a greater understanding of trends in law enforcement.  

And while homicide rates have tapered off slightly since summer 2020, killings in the first quarter of 2021 surpassed that of previous years, according to the NCCCJ’s latest report.

Creating more uncertainty, last week police reform legislation that had been the subject of bipartisan negotiations for more than a year on Capitol Hill died when Democrats and Republicans in the Senate hit an impasse.

Reform advocates now worry that communities will remain trapped in an endless cycle of violent crime.

“Every time there’s a shooting, there’s a new trauma. There’s a new reason to retaliate. And unfortunately, given the way we police with under-investment in communities, that almost has to work itself out,” Roman said. “Until we take seriously investing in communities to prevent violence, we’re standing by, watching an epidemic without a vaccine.”