Gun Violence Spiking Across American Cities

A marked rise in shooting deaths is going largely unnoticed.

From New York to Los Angeles and Chicago to Atlanta, homicides are up markedly across the United States. But the confluence of a Presidential election, a pandemic, and massive protests has rendered this a virtual non-story in the major print media. (I don’t have much idea what’s on broadcast or cable news.)

It wouldn’t have caught my attention at all, except that Dave Schuler has been lamenting the spree in his own city of Chicago and a news aggregator pointed me to a New York Daily News story originally headlined “41 shot overnight in NYC with at least 4 dead in citywide explosion of gun violence” (the current headline is less inflammatory, despite the death toll increasing to six).

The front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, both the two leading papers in the country and ones to which, unlike the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, I have subscriptions, are silent on the matter. The more propagandistic papers on the right and the Fox News website (and, one presumes, their cable programming) are covering it more, but I don’t trust their coverage.

CNN had story dated 1 July headlined “Gun violence surges in major American cities in the midst of a pandemic and a policing crisis.” After a lot of anecdotal coverage, it reports,

Over the weekend, more than 60 people were shot — 14 of them fatally — in 49 shooting incidents in the Windy City alone.

Chicago is among several major US cities experiencing a big spike in shootings and homicides so far this year. The increase in gun violence comes at a time when the heat is rising — literally and figuratively — on the streets, as cities reopen during a pandemic and mass anti-police brutality protests have led to law enforcement reforms and budget cuts.

In Philadelphia over the past weekend, seven people were shot in a span of three hours, according to CNN affiliate KYW-TV. One person was killed and two others critically wounded.

Shooting incidents in Philadelphia are up 57% from last year, the station reported, citing police records. Homicides, at 201 as of Monday, were up 24%

In Milwaukee, homicides have jumped 95% — to 82 — so far this year, according to police.

In the first week of June alone, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that homicides increased 250% compared to the previous week.

New York City has seen a 44% spike in shootings this year to 511, from 355 during the same period in 2019, according to the NYPD. There have been 176 murders, which is 23% higher than last year.

That’s a rather staggering pattern year-over-year. The reporting seems to imply that the spike has been brought on by a combination of warmer-than-usual weather and less policing. Absent substantial evidence, I’m incredibly skeptical on both counts.

The cops are definitely pushing that narrative, though:

Police blame the surge in gun violence on a combination of the early release of people from jail during the pandemic, the effects of a new state’s bail reform law and other factors.

“More people not in jail,” NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan told CNN. “Rikers Island (jail) in New York is empty. Between Covid, between bail reform, the protests caused animosity towards the police, which took us out of neighborhoods that needed us the most.”

Earlier this month, the NYPD disbanded its anti-crime unit, roughly 600 plainclothes officers whose aggressive tactics in fighting violent crime were often met with controversy.The NYPD said 272 uniformed officers filed for retirement between May 25 and June 23 — which Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch attributed to cops being at their “breaking point” during an anti-police climate. Last year, 183 officers had filed for retirement during that period.

“We are all asking the same question: How can we keep doing our job in this environment?” Lynch said in a statement.

This seems like self-serving nonsense. Aside from the woe-is-me whining, the notion that taking slightly more past-their-prime cops off the beat than usual during a narrow time frame has led to a 44 percent increase in homicides in the largest city in the country is, frankly, absurd.

Christopher Herrmann, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD analyst who focused on gun violence, said the week-to-week increases in New York shootings and homicides were unprecedented.

Herrmann said the numbers were due to people starting to emerge after months of coronavirus stay-at-home orders plus the warmer weather, when gun violence in larger cities tends to jump up to 30%.

Experts also noted the intense scrutiny of law enforcement and tensions with communities of color since Floyd’s death. The killing led to nationwide — and sometimes violent — protests, a wave of police reforms that included chokehold bans and a scaling back of law enforcement budgets in various cities.

That violent crime spikes in the summer is well-documented. But we have summer every year. Has this summer really been that much hotter than usual? I hadn’t noticed.

The combination of the frustrations and economic devastation of the pandemic—and the release after being cooped up for so long—strikes me as more plausible as an explanation.

I’m even sellable that the protests and even-more-strained-than-usual relations between the police and the community have led to more violence. Indeed, we’ve seen it. Presumably, this is the angle the right-leaning sites are pushing. But, surely, the impact on the overall homicide rate of that would be small.

Schuler attributes it to “stress,” without further explanation. And, certainly, these factors all fall within that explanation.

A follow-up report from last night breathlessly titled “Children are among the victims of July 4 weekend gun violence across the US” is completely anecdotal, providing no useful information about the overall phenomenon.

An April 29 report in The Trace (“Shootings Are a Glaring Exception to the Coronavirus Crime Drop“) collects and graphically examines data from several cities and explains,

Drawing broad conclusions from short timeframes and small quantities of data can be risky, and it will likely be months or years before we fully understand how the coronavirus has affected violent crime trends in America. But the unique characteristics of urban gun violence may help explain why shootings have continued in cities under lockdown as other crime fell away.

“With more people hanging around and available to each other, I would expect shootings to stay the same or go up,” said John Roman, an economist who studies crime patterns at the University of Chicago. “People are not in school, not at work and not in training and other things that take them away from their neighborhoods.”

The absence of bystanders — and police — who would ordinarily inhibit some acts of crime may also create space for gun violence to flare up.

“With more people indoors, it is probably less risky to commit premeditated acts of gun violence because there are fewer witnesses,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Experts have also predicted an upswing in cases of domestic violence, much of which is committed with firearms. In a few cities, domestic violence, like gun violence, has fallen less than overall crime, an analysis by The Marshall Project found. 

That’s interesting and plausible—and more nuanced than “stress.”

The report also contains this:

“This pandemic has not changed the behaviors of our most violent offenders,” said Kristen Metzger, a spokesperson for the D.C. police, in an email. “They continue to resolve disputes by shooting each other, even during the mayor’s stay-at-home order.”

While amusing, it’s circular. And doesn’t explain the drastic increase.

It’s worth noting, too, that Toronto—which is not experiencing inept management of the COVID pandemic, an election cycle, or massive protests over police violence—is also experiencing a spike in gun violence.

Additionally, while the new stressors are doubtless contributing to the problem, the rise was starting ahead of them. In researching this piece, I found a PBS report from October (in the beforetimes, when no one had heard of COVID-19 or George Floyd) titled “Gun deaths started to rise after more than a decade of being stable.”

The rate of gun deaths in the United States has experienced an uptick that started four years ago, a new study says — the first significant increase in these fatalities in 15 years.

Since 1999, the number of gun deaths held steady year after year — at 10.4 firearm fatalities per 100,000 people. But in 2015, the rate began creeping up nationwide to 11.8 deaths per 100,00 people-marking a 13.8-percent increase.

According to an analysis of death certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, more than 610,000 people died in the U.S. as the result of a firearm between 1999 and 2017-the most recent year available. There were more than 114,600 firearm deaths from 2015 to 2017 — accounting for nearly a quarter of all gun-related deaths since 1999. Almost 59 percent of those deaths were determined to be suicides, while another nearly 39 percent were tied to homicides.

The why is not explained. And it would be more useful for our purposes to disaggregate suicides and homicides.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Environment, Policing, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    The common denominator is guns, but I suspect the specific reason in each city is tied to factors that are relevant to the community. My friends in Minneapolis are attributing the outbreak there to the cities long running inability to deal with street gangs and retail drug sales with the multiplier of the police, rumored to, no longer responding to 911 calls regarding street drug trafficking.

    In my area, Boston has been relatively quiet, shootings have been reported but not to the extent seen in other cities and often in the near suburbs. Of course the recent protests were by and large peaceful here and maybe that has something to do with the smaller increase in violence.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But in 2015, the rate began creeping up nationwide…

    I blame Obama.

  3. R.Dave says:

    In researching this piece, I found a PBS report from October (in the beforetimes, when no one had heard of COVID-19 or Lloyd George)

    FYI re typo, which I’ve put in bold type. Should be George Floyd, of course.

    [Fixed – jhj]

  4. CSK says:

    (“…when no one had heard of Loyd George or Covid-19…”)
    Was the bolded a joke of some sort?

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    My guess – just a guess – is that one factor is that Covid has disrupted illegal drug markets, as well as cutting into protection and prostitution income. A weakened gang invites moves from other gangs. Tough to move or market product when people are in lockdown. If your gang relies on product and/or muscle from across the border, you may weaken relative to another gang. If your gang lives on protection money from small business, you’re hurting. Or, if your gang relied on human trafficking the pandemic will have cut dramatically into your income stream.

    Job loss and lockdowns with domestic abusers undoubtedly add to the toll.

    But first guesses are usually wrong in analyzing these things. We need more specific data.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    It’s been conventional wisdom that violent crime increases in a recession. Although IIRC it didn’t in 2009. But we’re having one heck of a recession, I expect way disproportionately affecting inner cities.

  7. R.Dave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: This is a really interesting idea I hadn’t considered and haven’t seen suggested anywhere else. I’ve been thinking that at least some of the rise must be attributable to gang violence, but I didn’t have any particular causal mechanic in mind beyond the usual – fewer witnesses, pent up pandemic frustrations, etc. Inter-gang power shifts due to the pandemic hadn’t occurred to me.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    @R.Dave: Dunno how this fits into the puzzle, but since a heck of a lot more people are remaining at home, haven’t burglaries gone down? Seem to have read that somewhere.

    ….of course, the pinching-of-stuff-from-Amazon-left-on-the-front-porch has probably skyrocketed….

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    From the conversations I’ve been having with police sources, it’s largely due to cops deciding to pull back and not initiate encounters on their own. They’re still responding to dispatches, but many of them have developed a sudden case of blindness with regard to the things happening around them. The attitude has become “Why should I do anything beyond the minimum when doing so can get me fired, or worse?” I’ve heard that sentiment from quite a few of them.

    Criminals are many things, but they aren’t stupid. They know when the police are no longer around / no longer paying attention. This should have been predictable.

  10. R. Dave says:

    @HarvardLaw92: The attitude has become “Why should I do anything beyond the minimum when doing so can get me fired, or worse?” I’ve heard that sentiment from quite a few of them.

    Any cop with that attitude should be fired, frankly. I agree it’s predictable, but there’s practically zero accountability for cops overstepping at this point, so if they find even the slightly increased risk that they’ll get in trouble for wrongly detaining, arresting, or harming someone these days intolerable, they absolutely should not have a badge and a gun.

  11. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @R. Dave:

    Their attitude is that they believe they will be sacrificed by political leadership in a knee jerk reaction to avoid community violence even if they’re doing it 100% by the book if somebody complains. It’s an argument not entirely without merit. In an age where anybody with a cell phone and an axe to grind can set off a terminate first, ask questions later firestorm, nobody is going to put themselves at greater risk of losing their pension and livelihood by seeking out wrongdoing and inviting conflict.

    And before you go there, trying to make someone do something they don’t want to do, which these encounters tend to involve, will always involve conflict. You can’t kumbahyah that out of the equation.

    The community may have lost faith in the police, but the police have equally lost faith in the community.

  12. Kathy says:

    I can’t recall the last time someone protested the police shooting armed suspects who had shot or were shooting at the police.

  13. HarvardLaw92 says:


    They do so every time they drag out the statistics regarding police involved deaths without differentiating between armed and unarmed offenders.

    To be fair, though, if your goal is to whip up an emotional reaction in furtherance of an agenda, 250 something does work a great better in that regard than 15 does.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    I suspect that’s about 75% bullshit. When has a cop ever actually prevented a murder? Cops investigate, they don’t prevent. And they’re as full of hubris and self pity as anyone.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Their attitude is that they believe they will be sacrificed by political leadership in a knee jerk reaction to avoid community violence even if they’re doing it 100% by the book if somebody complains.

    If only there wasn’t a seemingly substantial percentage of the police who don’t do it 100% by the book, these communities wouldn’t be having such negative reactions to the police, and if things like chokeholds are part of doing it by the book, the book needs to be rewritten…

    To be fair, though, if your goal is to whip up an emotional reaction in furtherance of an agenda, 250 something does work a great better in that regard than 15 does.

    And what, pray tell, is that agenda…

  16. Sleeping Dog says:


    What the police are mourning is the loss of being able to conduct their jobs with total impunity. Beat the crap out of a suspect, yeah they get written up, but they face no real consequences. Kill someone who they stop because a tail light is out and the driver is black? No big deal, the DA will avoid prosecution and if he/she does prosecute a jury will likely let the cop walk.

    Their attitude is that they believe they will be sacrificed by political leadership in a knee jerk reaction to avoid community violence even if they’re doing it 100% by the book if somebody complains.

    This attitude isn’t completely w/o merit, but it is basically bull hooey.

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Criminals who aren’t interdicted and left on the streets instead increases the likelihood of murder. More criminals present instead of contained = more gun violence. Less police scrutiny = emboldened criminals. I wouldn’t think that to be a difficult concept to grasp.

  18. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Estimated 700,000 officers in the US, who conducted an estimated 375 million or so unique encounters last year. How many of them resulted in what you’re describing?

    I’d think that the agenda – neutering the police in yet another failed emotionally driven attempt to make the scenario on the ground fit the liberal kumbahyah vision of how policing should be conducted – would be clear.

    Not saying there aren’t bad cops. Saying that IMO they are the exception rather than the norm, but suddenly the profession as a whole is under attack. Why would any of them seek out additional risk under that scenario?

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    Nah, it’s cop BS. How are other forms of crime, burglary, robbery etc…, down, if cops are the issue? Pouting cops stop armed robbers but not murderers?

    I doubt anyone can produce evidence of a real cop ever actually preventing a gang or domestic murder. I mean, maybe a tiny handful of cases, but more as a fluke than evidence of some larger phenomenon. If you get into a fight with your wife at 2 AM, lose your shit and shoot her, what did a cop ever do about that? If some gangster wants to run some other gangster off his drug market corner, cops are way down the list of that gangster’s concerns.

    If police presence stopped gun crime we’d see reductions in such crime wherever we saw a city increase the number of officers. No such data exists. The bad guys who worry about cops are people like armed robbers, because they’re criming out in the open and could be randomly interrupted by police. But if you’re a gangster you’re not at all worried about police, you’re worried about the rival gang.

    Your police friends are talking bullshit. And rather than trying to extort society by threatening not to do the work we pay them for, maybe they could drop the blue wall of silence, thin blue line bullshit and stop acting like just another armed gang. Cops are on the spot now because cops have broken the law with impunity, they’ve covered up each other’s crimes, and now they’re getting caught. And they don’t like having to obey the law.

  20. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Cool story bro 🙄

  21. HelloWorld! says:

    Violent crime in cities is spiking because of “violence interupters”. I listed my DC townhouse because as we stop making arrests and prosecuting criminals violence goes up. I LOVED my neighborhood until 2017. Every year since then it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. 7 shot dead within 3 blocks of my house THIS YEAR. Thanks AG Racine and CM Nadeau…gang members as mentors is a joke.