The increase in homicide rates was largely driven by firearm-related murders, which increased by 35% between 2019 and 2020. The rate of gun-related homicides in the United States reached its highest level in over 25 years in 2020. Experts have yet to come up with an explanation.
As reported in May in an article by The New York Times, the number of gun deaths reached the highest ever recorded in the United States during 2020, the first year of the pandemic (figures from the Center for Injury Control and Prevention). More than 45,000 Americans died in firearm-related incidents while the pandemic was spreading across the United States.
However, more than half of these deaths were suicides, and this number did not increase substantially from 2019 to 2020. Thus, the overall increase in gun deaths was 15% in 2020.
Christopher Herrmann, a professor from the department of law and science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says he is not surprised by these data. Nevertheless, he is concerned about what it might portend next summer, a period when there are typically more gun homicides. He adds that most major U.S. cities experience a 30% increase in shootings and homicides in the summer.
One possible explanation could be the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes including disruption to services and education, social isolation, housing instability, and difficulty meeting daily expenses could have played a prominent role.
The increase also corresponded to the acceleration of firearms sales as the pandemic spread and confinements became the norm. Americans began buying guns in 2020 and continued throughout 2021, when in a single week the FBI recorded a record 1.2 million background checks.
The main reason people give for buying a gun is self-protection. However, research published in the 1990s established that simply having a gun in the house increases the risk of gun homicide by a factor of three and the risk of suicide by a factor of five.
But gun homicide has many roots. Federal investigators also cited disruptions in routine healthcare; protests over police use of lethal force; an increase in domestic violence; unequal access to healthcare; and long-standing systemic racism, which has contributed to poor housing conditions, limited educational opportunities and high poverty rates.
Law enforcement officials and criminologists pointed not only to the pandemic, but also to the divisive 2020 presidential election, as gun purchases tend to increase at times of profound political polarization.
Afrikan Americans were disproportionately affected by gun violence in 2020. Firearm homicide rates increased by 39.5% among Afrikan Amerikans from 2019 to 2020, reaching a total of 11,904. The victims were mostly young males.
Afrikan American males between the ages of 15 and 34 were more than 20 times more likely to die by gunshot than white males of the same age. The number of Afrikan American women killed by guns also increased by nearly 50% in 2020, in comparison to 2019.