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COVID pandemic and isolation likely pushed spike in 2020 homicides and assaults

Pandemic's unique impact brings aberration in overall crime not seen in four years, and in homicides not seen in decades.

James Alan Fox Opinion columnist
Published Oct. 4, 2021

Adding to the misery caused by catastrophic hurricanes in the South, raging wildfires in the West and the deadly spread of COVID-19 throughout the land, came news from the FBI that overall violent crime rose in 2020 for the first time in four years, including a nearly 30% spike in murder and non-negligent manslaughter. Curiously, however, while homicides and aggravated assaults soared, two categories of violent crime - rape and robbery - actually declined, as did burglaries and larcenies.

After decades of relative calm in terms of the crime rate, such a turn of misfortune begs for explanation, as does the divergent pattern among the four major categories of violence. Of course, a surge as large as was reported in killings would involve several factors, some of which are tied directly or indirectly to the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent changes in lifestyle.

Most prominent is the fact that millions of Americans were suddenly out of work or school, thereby lacking structure in their daily lives. Idleness provided far too many opportunities for conflict and too much free time. For example, despite lockdowns, street gangs remained active, resulting in a 62% spike in gang-related homicides.

Aside from street battles, much of violent conflict occurred at home, with families forced to spend hour after hour cloistered together inside. Extended periods of close contact, boredom and economic hardship often meant little tranquility at home, as family homicide rose 26%.

The year saw staggering growth in firearm sales, as some gun owners feared that a Democratic sweep in Washington would lead to restrictions on their Second Amendment rights. Others acquired weapons to protect their families out of concern that shortages in food and supplies might bring desperate intruders to their doorsteps.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the rise in murder and mayhem on the street and in the home involved firearms. Gun-related homicides rose 35% in 2020 over 2019, while those involving all other weapons increased only 17%. Unfortunately, weapons purchased ostensibly to protect family members sometimes have in fact been used against loved ones, as family-related gun homicides jumped 34%.

The same pandemic-related closures and lockdowns that fueled homicide and aggravated assault helped, to some extent, produce the drops in rape and robbery. With college campuses, schools, bars, nightclubs and retail businesses shuttered for much of the year, there were fewer opportunities for certain acts of violence. Likewise, there were fewer opportunities for commercial burglary and larceny.

Besides the major changes in lifestyle, the nation has been experiencing a disturbing shift in tenor - some, but far from all, related to the pandemic. Arguably, the schism over a multitude of issues is wider and more rancorous than at any point since the 1960s dissent over the Vietnam War. In addition to disputes over mandated lockdowns and masking, the country was divided over the presidential campaign and the veracity of its outcome as well as race and policing. These disputes strained relationships among neighbors, friends and family members.

Over the past year, many politicians and pundits have described the problem of gun violence as an epidemic, and the spike in gun homicides would appear to validate that characterization. However, without minimizing the sad fact that there were 4,000 more firearm homicides in 2020 than the year before, it is premature to suggest this will be a continuing trajectory.

It is likely that the 2020 spike in violence will prove to be a short-term aberration largely because of the unique impact of the pandemic. While the battles over politics and social issues may persist for years, there will be a point when our society gets back to a reasonable degree of normalcy as we gain better control over the pandemic.

The 2020 murder rate, although significantly above that of recent years, is a third lower than in the 1990s, when ruthless competition associated with the crack cocaine trade drove the murder rate to a near-record level. Eventually, the effect of crack markets subsided, and the homicide rate rapidly declined. The same should be true once the nation survives the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the crime figures for 2021 are incomplete, early indications are positive, or at least not so negative. Crime reports from various jurisdictions around the country suggest that the scourge of violence hasn't ended, although the increases are less pronounced. That is a good sign for slightly better times ahead.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and co-author of "The Will to Kill." Follow him on Twitter@jamesalanfox

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