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The United States saw an unprecedented rise in the number of murders last year. They rose by nearly 30 per cent over the previous year, to some 21,500, the FBI reported.
The pandemic spread fear and gun sales grew exponentially. The FBI says 77 percent of the murders were committed with firearms, the highest percentage ever recorded.
Earlier this year, the US National Commission on Crime and Criminal Justice had already predicted a 30 per cent increase in the number of murders committed during the pandemic, based on data from 34 cities. Several of them had already reported an increase in the number of violent crimes, but the FBI figures have provided a nationwide picture.
It is the sharpest increase in the number of murders since the FBI began collecting data in the 1960s. There were 6.5 murders per 100,000 people. In 2019 the rate was 5 per 100,000.
The jump occurred in every state in the country, in large urban centres as well as in small towns and municipalities governed by both Democrats and Republicans.
The increase in murders occurred at the same time as a drop in other types of crime in 2020, such as robbery. Asher notes that property crime recorded its eighteenth consecutive year of decline last year, a result likely influenced by the closing of business establishments due to the pandemic.
Confinement created a social funnel
No single factor explains the historic increase in a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis, a boom in gun sales, and protests against racism and police brutality that caused millions to take to the streets across the country.
The pandemic spread anxiety among the population for fear of contracting the disease. It was like a great social funnel. Isolation closed schools, churches, bars and entertainment facilities, locking and isolating people in their own homes, without any possibility of socialisation.
The pandemic also led to a reduction in violence prevention and counselling programmes, suspended because of the need to preserve social distancing.
In addition, millions of Americans lost their jobs and faced financial problems as a result of the pandemic.
Scared and armed to the teeth
Since the beginning of the pandemic, gun dealers across the country reported a sharp increase in sales, with crowded shops, long lines on pavements and fears that ammunition stockpiles may not be sufficient to meet demand.
It is estimated that nearly 40 million guns were legally sold in the country in 2020, the highest number since the FBI began collecting this data in 1998.
Preliminary data indicate that the trend will continue this year. Murder rates will see another jump, though smaller than last year.
A sample of 87 US cities with data at least through the end of June indicates a 9.9 percent increase in the number of murders compared to the same period last year.
In Las Vegas the growth is already over 62 percent. In Portland it is over 81 per cent.