2020 was the deadliest year in United States history, with more than three million lives lost nationwide. That represented a 15 percent leap from 2019, and the most dramatic year-over-year mortality jump since 1918, when the twin burden of World War I and the Spanish flu prematurely killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
As with 1918, the rise in deaths can largely be ascribed to a pandemic. And, as with 1918 deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic alone doesn’t tell the whole story.
Much to the chagrin of police departments nationwide, in 2020 the homicide rate skyrocketed across the country—in one analysis of 21 cities, by an average of 32 percent per city in the pandemic’s first six months.
Break the numbers down further, and the escalation of violence is even more dramatic.
“In March, April and May , the homicide numbers actually went down quite a bit,” Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor of law & police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells A&E Real Crime. “But once society started to reopen, we saw an explosion—double and sometimes triple-digit increases in homicide. That’s unheard of.”
Did COVID-19 cause people to kill each other? The correlation between the virus and the jump in murders is too strong to ignore. But if it did, then how?
The Murderer You Know
With so many public spaces closed and contact between people severely limited, it would be natural to assume that murder rates would go down: You need to see and interact with people to kill them. But in the claustrophobic days of quarantine, a lot of homicides may have come from inside the household.
“Domestic violence is really one of the things that changed a lot for us last year,” says Sergeant Mercedes Fortune of the Phoenix Police Department. In Phoenix, homicides surged by 44 percent between 2019 and 2020. But the domestic violence homicide spike was even more stark, with the citywide domestic violence homicide rate jumping 139 percent from 2019 to 2020.
Lieutenant Patrick Pajot of the Milwaukee Police Department Homicide Unit has likewise seen an increase in violence between people with close relationships: those who live in a home together or are romantic partners.
“A lot of [my cases] are people who know each other,” Pajot tells A&E Real Crime. “There’s a lot of mental health issues going on in the world right now [contributing to the increase in violence].”
Is Poverty the Key? The Experts Disagree
Some believe that increased financial hardship is a key reason for the rise of violent crime.
“There’s a gun violence and homicide issue, to begin with,” says Herrmann. “Socioeconomic disadvantage leads to higher rates of homicide.”
By that measure, it’s logical to assume that more socioeconomic disadvantage means more homicide. There were more than three times as many Americans unemployed in May 2020 as there were in May 2019. Using poverty as a guiding metric, a spike in homicide was inevitable.
But Pajot isn’t sold that increased poverty explains what’s happened in Milwaukee, where in 2020, the homicide rate nearly doubled and the city recorded its most murderous year in history.
“I don’t think that’s as big of a problem as people talk about it,” Pajot says of unemployment. “Our robbery homicides are up a little bit over last year, but not drastically. Property crime is down. I still think our big uptick is just that there’s all this pent-up aggression.”
In Milwaukee, road rage murders are up too, Pajot says—a statistic that points more to short fuses than thin wallets.
With Schools Closed, the Young Might Be Acting Out
Young people may also be helping drive up the homicide rates.
Crime seasonality has been a long-observed phenomenon, with summer often bringing an uptick of criminality nationwide. Much of that warm-weather violence can be attributed to young people, who find more opportunity for conflict when they’re not confined to the classroom.
With physical schools closed for the better part of 2020, there’s evidence that youth mischief, which usually wreaks havoc in the summer, was felt year-round.
In the city of Milwaukee, where schools had been closed for over a year as of the time of publication, Pajot says he’s observed the trend toward youth criminality firsthand in the cases he’s worked.
“There’s definitely an uptick since they’ve been out of school. I’ve seen more juveniles getting arrested, and also more juveniles being the victims of crimes,” he says, adding that juvenile auto theft and gun violence is likewise up.
But Herrmann isn’t certain that closed schools play a big factor.
“Even though the kids aren’t in school, [some] parents are home as well…so there’s more parental supervision during the pandemic,” Herrmann says.
New Guns on the Streets
One big source of concern for Herrmann is new gun ownership. In 2020, gun purchases surged. What’s more, a lot of those gun purchases were by first-time gun owners—as many as 8.4 million purchases in 2020, according to one estimate, or 40 percent of new guns in a year of record sales.
“That’s like if everyone in New York City buys a gun” for the first time, Herrmann says. “It’s a pretty big number.”
Studies have shown a strong correlation between gun ownership rates and domestic homicide rates.
One of the big differences between increased gun ownership and some of the other proposed theories for the 2020 homicide spike? There’s nothing about increased vaccinations or the reopening of schools and businesses that would contribute to a decline in gun sales.
“Shootings were at such a low in 2018 and 2019,” says Herrmann. “If you compare  to the 1990s, you’re nowhere even close to where we used to be.”
It begs the question, Hermann says: “Is this the new normal?”