Stop calling America’s murder crisis a ‘crime’ issue. It’s something far worse. | Will Bunch
From baby showers to Pat's Steaks, Americans are killing each other over dumb stuff as traditional crime drops. It's time to rethink the problem.
It was the kind of news story that would have been utterly shocking ... before March of 2020, anyway. An everyday occasion normally associated with joy — a baby shower — pivots into a squabble over something trivial. In this particular saga, which took place last weekend in a Pittsburgh suburb, the argument was over who would transport the shower gifts. Somehow, this devolved in an altercation — but after some brief fisticuffs, the father-to-be abruptly whipped out a 9mm handgun and started firing at his guests.
This time, three people were wounded, but thankfully no one was killed. But this happened in a nation that in 2020 posted its biggest spike in homicides since modern records began, and is still seeing a lethal upward trend in 2021. What struck me about the triple shooting in Lower Burrell Township, Pa., was that it’s no longer a rare “man-bites-dog story” to read about guns — or other extreme violence, but usually guns — in situations where weaponry once would have been unimaginable.
During a Major League Baseball game, or at high school football games — again and again and again. A woman driving down I-95 for a Carolina beach vacation. Cutting into a line for gasoline in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, or fighting over a parking space at a Walgreen’s, or a squabble over a $10 pool pass. A supermarket clerk in Georgia who asked a customer to put on a mask — one of seven such killings to happen so far in 2021. Gunplay between two 9-year-olds in Washington, D.C., that cops described as “a targeted shooting.”
A recent killing during an argument at South Philly’s iconic Pat’s Steaks was notable because it was the second time in 2021 that a customer was killed at a place where the only fear of death is supposed to be your skyrocketing cholesterol level.
Murder up, crime down
This week, the FBI attached a number to what Americans already know: This country has a murder problem, particularly around guns. Homicides across the nation spiked dramatically in the pandemic-plagued year of 2020 by nearly 30%, obliterating the previous record annual increase (interestingly, in 1968, another year when America seemed to be unraveling, with assassinations and riots). Some 5,000 more Americans were murdered last year than in 2019 — a figure more than the U.S. death toll in the entire Iraq War — and more of the overall killings were with a gun (some 77%) than in any previous year.
Statistics for the current year of 2021 are incomplete and sketchy — for some complicated reasons — but many jurisdictions are seeing the upward trend in homicides continue. One of the most dramatic examples is right here in Philadelphia, where 393 murders had been tallied through Wednesday night, a 17% rise over 2020 and all but certain to set an all-time record, in the nation’s sixth-largest city.
» READ MORE: There’s nothing more progressive than stopping city kids from getting shot | Will Bunch
Caveats? There are a couple of big ones. The steep nationwide rise in 2020 was coming off a period of very low homicide rates by modern standards, meaning that overall the number of U.S. murders is still less than half of its peak years in the early 1990s. The other asterisk is, in my opinion, even more relevant when it comes to talking about solutions: Murder is up, but in almost every other category crime was down, continuing a long-term trend. The FBI said this week that overall major crimes dropped around 4% last year. Of course — unlike homicide — most other crime stats are affected by what citizens choose to report, or which laws the police choose to enforce. But in the big picture it seems clear that America’s murder problem and its crime situation are going in different directions.
This divorce between the murder rate and other crimes seems to be occurring because of changes in both the reasons and the manner in which Americans kill one another. In the years when murder and crime generally were rising in tandem — the steady climb in the 1970s, when street crimes like so-called “muggings” or robberies gone bad were often a factor, or the drug-corner wars of the 1990s — there was a significant economic component to our homicides. I think of a friend who was murdered, Daily News columnist Russell Byers, who in 1999 was stabbed to death buying ice cream at a Wawa by a man demanding money.
What progressive are missing
Anecdotally, the vast majority of murders that make the news in the 2020s aren’t about money, but pure unvarnished and unchecked rage. In Philadelphia and other big cities, most weekends bring one or more incidents in which a person drives up and fires into a crowd. Everytown reports that the number of people either shot to death or wounded in so-called “road rage” incidents has doubled since the summer of 2020. You’d likely be hearing the same stat about “air rage” killings — those kinds of incidents have skyrocketed, too — if there were not an effective gun ban on commercial flights.
Too many times, I’ve watched some of my liberal or progressive friends on Twitter dismiss the coverage of America’s murder crisis as the overkill of a sensational media. They point to that overall drop in crime to insist there’s not really a problem. I understand the thinking: There’s a valid fear on the left that bad actors will use the rising homicide numbers to either scuttle the badly needed police reforms raised in 2020′s George Floyd protests or return to the mass-incarceration regime of recent years. But — as I’ve argued previously in this space — nothing could be less progressive than ignoring the very real pain of our neighbors who’ve lost a loved one to gun violence.
“The fact that gun violence is increasing should not be seen as an attack on criminal-justice reform,” Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime analyst told me, as he noted that through 2019 murder rates in his Louisiana hometown fell in tandem with the jail population. Like other crime experts, Asher said it’s hard to mine motives from crime stats and that the 2020-21 murder spike seems to be a toxic brew of factors — COVID-19 stress, the worsening lack of trust between communities and police after Floyd’s killing, and a surge both in people buying guns and carrying them in public.
Rage and the Republicans
A couple of things do seem clear. One is that too many Americans are using guns in situations that don’t call for firepower — like moving the gifts at a baby shower, or getting cut off on I-95 — because too many Americans have guns in the first place. That 30% rise in murders happened during a 2020 in which 40 million Americans — a roughly 40% increase — bought guns, and 2021 has seen no slowdown, thanks in part to the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. Thus, reducing guns will need to be part of any solution, even though most of the current gun-control proposals largely tinker on the margins, and lawmakers struggle to pass even these.
The other obvious takeaway is that if murder, 2020s-style, is increasingly a matter of people’s inability to control their anger — because of social alienation that only grew worse during the pandemic, or because of frustration over politics or a changing culture or their economic plight — then the traditional tough-on-crime solutions like “broken windows policing” or targeting neighborhoods or tougher sentencing won’t do much good. This might be the moment to take up some Republicans on their occasional cries that mass shootings are a mental-health issue by both investing more money in traditional mental health programs to also look more broadly at what can be done to reduce societal anger and the need for retribution.
The new numbers “suggest that we need to try a lot of things here,” Asher told me, adding that some ideas will likely fail but with the idea that “if they fail, fail quickly” so that different approaches can then be tried. The only thing that absolutely will not work is burying our collective heads in the sand. No, America does not have a new crime problem. But when people are turning baby showers into firing ranges, we definitely have a gun violence problem, and a murder crisis that comes with it. The sooner our society agrees on this, the sooner we can solve this.
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