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US saw estimated 4,000 extra murders in 2020 amid surge in daily gun violence

<span>Photograph: Bill Greenblatt/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Bill Greenblatt/Rex/Shutterstock

For exactly a year during the pandemic, the United States did not see a single high-profile public mass shooting. But a surge in daily gun violence contributed to an estimated 4,000 additional murders throughout 2020, in what experts warn will probably be the worst single-year increase in murders on record.

There were only two public shootings in 2020 that primarily targeted strangers, were not related to other crimes and killed at least four victims – one standard definition researchers use to classify “mass shootings” – according to two databases that track this kind of gun violence. That’s the lowest annual count of high-profile mass shootings in America in nearly a quarter-century, according to Jillian Peterson, the founder of the Violence Project, which tracks these mass shootings going back to 1966.

At the same time, the number of people murdered in everyday violence last year surged in cities large and small. Early estimates suggest the US may have seen at least 4,000 more murders last year than in 2019, and potentially as many as 5,000 more, according to projections based on FBI data, though complete official statistics will not be available until the fall. The Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in real time using media reports, recorded nearly 4,000 more gun homicides in 2020 compared with 2019, according to founder Mark Bryant.

Many of the homicides are concentrated in communities of color that have historically seen the worst burden of daily gun violence, including in Philadelphia, St Louis, Chicago and Oakland.

“We don’t get the reprieve that other communities get. Black and Latino mothers are still burying their children,” said Pastor Michael McBride, the executive director of Live Free USA, a gun violence prevention non-profit, who has spent nearly a decade struggling to get more national political attention for the toll of daily gun violence.

In response to two high-profile mass shootings in the past week, one targeting shoppers at a grocery store in Colorado and another Asian women at spas in Georgia, Joe Biden called on lawmakers to pass a renewed ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to expand background checks on gun sales, part of a renewed national debate over strengthening gun control laws.

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But in Philadelphia, where the number of gun homicides was 40% higher in 2020 than it was in 2019 and with at least 103 people killed so far this year, Pastor Carl Day said an assault-weapon ban would not do much for the communities most burdened by gun violence.

“The point is being missed for the most part. You can take away high-capacity magazines, but a legal clip can kill eight people,” Day, a gun violence prevention organizer in Philadelphia said. “It’s not just about creating tougher gun laws, it’s about where we’re investing our money. You have to enrich and equip communities with what they need.”

Organizers are calling on the Biden administration to make a historic $5bn investment in inner-city gun violence reduction, focused on Black and brown communities. The money would be disbursed over eight years and go toward existing groups that work in the most hard-hit communities, helping to ensure that mentorship and intervention initiatives can start restart in-person programs that were disrupted during the pandemic.

“Our lawmakers need to be educated about the actual realities of gun violence,” said Fatimah Loren, executive director of the New-Jersey based Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, one of the activists pushing for the $5bn investment in local strategies.

America’s national mourning over shootings needs to become “more inclusive”, she said, “so the survivors who didn’t make national headlines feel seen”.

The number of all murders rose 25% across the country in 2020, with double-digit increases in small, medium and large cities, according to preliminary data from a large subset of law enforcement agencies that the FBI released last week.

A 25% increase in murders nationwide for 2020 would mean an estimated 4,100 additional murders last year, compared with 2019, according to Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime data analyst. At least three-quarters of those murders, and perhaps more, are likely to be gun murders, based on trends from previous years, Asher said.

That would be the highest single-year increase, both in the murder rate and in the total number of additional murders, going back to 1960, the earliest year national crime data is available, Asher said.

The FBI’s preliminary 2020 data does not yet include some of the cities that saw the worst increases in murder last year, including Chicago, New Orleans and New York, Asher said, which might mean that total murders could rise more than 25%.

“If there’s a 30% increase, which I think is very plausible, that would be 5,000 additional people murdered,” he said.

“The thing that stands out about last year’s change in murders is that it was everywhere. Chicago and New York and the traditional places get the headlines, but Omaha, Nebraska; Lubbock, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana: all of these towns saw huge increases in murder.”

Even with a 30% increase in a single year, he said, the country’s murder rate would still remain lower than it had been in the early 1990s.

The point is being missed. You can take away high-capacity magazines, but a legal clip can kill eight people

Pastor Carl Day

The full reasons for last year’s sharp increase in community gun violence are still far from clear. Gun violence interrupters and clinicians point to the loss of vital in-person interactions between prevention workers and those most at risk of being on either side of a gun. Lawmakers and activists have also pointed to the rising levels of unemployment and financial and personal instability related to the pandemic, as well as the surge in gun sales, with Americans buying an estimated 17m guns through September 2020.

A spike in gun purchases during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic was associated with a nearly 8% increase in shooting injuries in the US between March and May, according to an estimate from researchers at the University of California, Davis.

Asher, the crime analyst, said he was skeptical of claims that there was any simple causal connection between the protests over police violence that started after George Floyd’s killing in late May and the spike in murders in the early summer, noting that there was “no relationship between the places that had the most protests, or the places that had the most violent protests, and changes in violence. It was literally everywhere.”

Mark Bryant, the Gun Violence Archive founder, said analysts tracking daily media reports of gun violence saw a large number of drive-by shootings contributing to the rising toll, as well as domestic violence killings and “club shootings” at pop-up parties held despite public health restrictions.

Though there was a year-long lull in high-profile mass shootings, incidents where multiple people are killed or injured have long been occurrences in neighborhoods. Still, these everyday mass shootings are rarely covered in national news.

“The rare mass shooting gets covered nationally because it’s ‘news’ and so people in turn believe that they take up more of a burden than they really do,” said Dr Jessica Beard, a trauma surgeon and researcher with Temple University in Philadelphia. “But you can’t design solutions based on the most rare form of the disease.”

However, highly publicized gun attacks, in which a perpetrator opens fire on strangers in a public place “really disappeared” in recent months as the pandemic led to widespread stay-at-home orders and hundreds of thousands of Americans died from Covid-19, Peterson, of the violence project, said.

Between 16 March last year, when a 31-year-old man shot four people to death at a convenience store in Missouri, and 16 March this year, when a 21-year-old man opened fire at three spas around Atlanta, Georgia, there was not a single recorded mass shooting in the databases of the Violence Project or Mother Jones magazine, which both track a similar subset of mass shootings that leave four or more people dead.

The last time the US saw only two of these kinds of high-profile mass shootings in a single year was in 1996, Peterson said.

Research has shown that mass shootings “tend to cluster”, with one 2015 study showing a heightened risk of further public shootings for 13 days after a highly publicized attack, Peterson said.

“We had hoped we had broken the trend and they were going to fade away, because we had lost the social contagion aspect,” Peterson said. “They were out of the news and off our radar.”