Media musings on a spike in homicides and shootings over the past year focus on how “defund the police” and other civil rights movement calls to action are affecting public safety—while largely ignoring any policy proposals that could keep guns off the street.
The headlines blare from every corner of the news media: “Defund the Police Encounters Resistance as Violent Crime Spikes” (CNN, 5/25/21). “Cities Reverse Defunding the Police Amid Rising Crime” (Wall Street Journal, 5/26/21).”Democrats Pushed Hard Last Year to Rein in Police. A Rise in Homicides Is Prompting a Shift” (Washington Post, 6/27/21).
Crime is up, especially homicides and shootings, and the most-cited culprits are civil rights demonstrators calling for defunding the police. Far less often mentioned in these articles and reports is the role of the massive increase in gun sales in 2020–21.Gun sales exploded
Reasons for the increase in gun sales are manifold: political instability during a close and contested election, fears of societal collapse during a global pandemic, and the rise of political extremism, to name just a few.
As CNN (3/14/21) reported, citing an arms industry consulting firm, gun sales in 2020 exploded: 23 million weapons were sold, outpacing 2019’s nearly 14 million by around 65%. USA Today (2/10/21), using records of FBI background checks, had a different, higher number: “Gun sales in the United States rose 40% last year to 39,695,315.”
2021 is poised to smash these records. As MSN (7/5/21) reported this month, gun sales for the first half of this year totaled more than 22 million, an increase of 15% from last year’s already unprecedented total. As the New York Times (5/29/21) reported in May:
“There was a surge in purchasing unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, a gun researcher at the University of California, Davis. “Usually it slows down. But this just kept going.”
In this context, the relentless, narrow focus on “defund the police” and the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020 is misplaced. There are, of course, any number of reasons that may lead to increased crime, and it’s impossible to identify precisely what is driving the rise in violent crime. But a relative lack of interest in guns as a driver of shootings and homicides in the reports is noticeable.
Axios (7/12/21) and the Guardian (7/9/21) have touted results from a new study (Injury Epidemiology, 7/5/21) by researchers at the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis that purports to show the rise in gun sales did not have a major effect on gun violence in 2020. The researchers lined up gun sales and gun violence on a state by state basis, and found “no relationship between state-level excess purchasing and non-domestic firearm violence.”
But the state-level approach taken by the study elides a rather important point: Many guns used in violent crimes cross state lines—60% in Illinois, 74% in New York, 83% in New Jersey—rendering the expectation that there should be a 1:1 relationship between state-level gun sales and state gun violence rather fanciful. And the data itself may be incomplete, as Axios noted:
National data on homicides is spotty and laggy—authorities won’t know the full number of murders last year for months—and there is no conclusive database on gun purchases or who owns firearms in the US, all of which complicates connecting the dots.Murders and shootings up
According to FBI crime data, murders rose by 25% around the country in 2020. Of that 4,100 increase in murders, 75% are likely to be gun murders, as crime data analyst Jeff Asher told the Guardian (3/24/21) in March.
And the numbers this year might even be higher:
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.
That’s not the whole story—the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report system shows that while violent crime has spiked slightly, the general shift is downward. And property crime has continued to go down every year over the past decade.
Yet when corporate news media address the connection in the rise in violent crime and gun sales, it’s often with a hesitant, careful approach. NPR (3/3/21) in March devoted an entire report to downplaying any such connection—”Experts Who Study This Say Not So Fast”—and then in June (6/19/21) turned to Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo for a segment headlined “Understanding 2021’s Rise in Gun Violence.” Acevedo used the opportunity as a platform to use the rise in crime in his city as a reason to continue to invest resources in policing, egged on by host Scott Simon.
“Doesn’t sound like you think this is a good time to reduce police resources,” Simon said. “I won’t use that red flag of a word, ‘defund.'”
CBS News (5/24/21) framed the parallel rise in gun sales and crime as a problem of insufficient infrastructure for background checks—”Some of those sales are stretching our background check system thin,” its source says—a law enforcement–friendly view of the problem. Last year, the network (7/8/20) implied a correlation between a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s budget—dropping it from $89.1 billion to $88 billion—and the 130% increase in shootings in New York City through the first six months of 2020:
The increase in violence comes amid widespread calls to defund and reform police departments across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. New York’s decision to defund a small percentage of the NYPD was the first budget cut the department has been given since de Blasio took office.
NBC News (3/14/21) covered the rise in violent crime as evidence that cutting police department budgets was a mistake. Guns were mentioned, but only in the context of police enforcement:
[Lansing, Michigan Police Chief Daryl] Green vowed to lean on the violent crime task force, formed a decade ago in response to an uptick in fatal shootings—including that of Edmond’s daughter—to take illegal guns off the streets and interrupt retaliatory gun attacks.
Fox News (4/1/21), unsurprisingly, took aim at defund measures as the primary driver of a rise in violent crime, arguing that
as police departments were left to make do with shrunken budgets and less support, some big cities have seen sometimes drastic upticks in murders and other violent crimes.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the US media have any interest in uncovering the root causes for societal ills like violent crime—or if pushing civil rights movement demands as divisive culture war issues is the point.
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