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.
— David A. Graham in America Is Having a Violence Wave, Not a Crime Wave