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The big spike in murders in 2020, explained in 600 words

Murders surged in 2020. Here’s what we know.

Chicago police secure the area around the residence of a murder suspect in 2005.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The past year was a nightmare in many ways for the US, between Covid-19 deaths and the collapsing economy. But it’s now clear that 2020 was bad in yet another way: Over the year, America’s murder rate surged dramatically.

“It is the largest year-to-year increase we’ve seen in a very long time,” Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey told me.

The surge is from a relatively low baseline of murders, after a big drop in crime and violence America since 1990, known as the “Great Crime Decline.” But that’s one reason experts are concerned: This breaks a period of relative peace in the US.

Here’s what you need to know about the surge, broken down into three key facts.

1) There really was a spike in murders in 2020.

Data from the FBI, the Council on Criminal Justice, and crime analyst Jeff Asher shows that the murder rate surged by upward of 25 percent in 2020. Violent crime in general rose as well, though not as much as murders, with aggravated assaults and shootings up. But nonviolent crimes, such as those involving drugs or theft, fell — leading to an overall decrease of crime even as violent crime and murders rose.

The murder increase essentially set the US back decades on crime reduction efforts, putting total murders back at the levels of the 1990s.

Chart showing based on preliminary FBI data, the US’s murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020. That amounts to more than 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995, up from about 16,000 in 2019.

The increase was truly nationwide, with the FBI data finding surges in places rural and urban, across every region of the country.

Chart showing similar increases of 20-30 percentage points in murders across regions of the US.

We don’t know yet if this increase will become a long-term shift in violent crime. Asher has found that murders were up in the first three months of 2021, but it’s too early to draw hard conclusions about the year or the future.

2) We still don’t know why the murder rate spiked.

Last year was extremely weird in a lot of ways, in large part due to Covid-19. It also, obviously, just happened. Both of those factors make it really hard for experts to isolate what led to a murder spike. So far there’s no consensus.

Still, there are theories.

Covid-19 could have led to more violence, perhaps by leading to the shutdown of social programs that could have prevented murders, or by eliminating the job or education opportunities that keep young people out of trouble.

The widespread protests around policing, following the death of George Floyd, could have played a role as well, leading cops to pull back from proactive policing they worry could get them in trouble, or fueling distrust in law enforcement and making it harder for them to stop violent criminals.

Americans also bought a record number of guns last year, and the research, including a 2020 study, shows that more guns lead to more gun violence.

Or it could be none of the above. After such a weird year, and with the data so limited, there are still a lot of open questions to answer before we know for sure.

3) There are proven solutions to this problem.

The good news: Even without knowing why this is happening, we have evidence-based solutions to murders and violence.

That includes the kind of programs I previously covered, such as improving physical spaces, summer jobs programs, and increasing the alcohol tax. More gun control could help, too, particularly requiring a license to buy and own a firearm.

Police could play a role as well, with promising strategies like “focused deterrence” that combine social services and the threat of punishment. But experts argue these strategies can only work if cops work to regain public trust — with real accountability efforts and reforms in how officers are deployed.

If done correctly, this would benefit America’s most vulnerable: low-income communities of color disproportionately hurt by gun violence. “Those are communities that have never received basic investments,” Sharkey said. “The consequences of that are clear.”

For more on the murder surge, read my explainer at Vox.