Why the big increase in U.S. murders? Andrew Sullivan has a theory which is his.

June 12, 2021 • 12:45 pm

We know two things: that the murder and shooting rate in America has gone sky high, especially in big cities, and we know that, at the same time, many on the Left are trying to defund the police. Now police reform is one thing (I do approve of social workers going along on calls that require that kind of treatment), but deeply cutting police budgets right now is a recipe for disaster—disaster for both human lives and for the Democratic Party.

In Chicago, for instance, 289 people have already been killed this year, and the year is barely half over. But that’s already 16 more people killed than in all of 2020! If you extrapolate the present rate to the entire year, it would represent an increase of about 96% over 2020! In the article below, which reports similar increases elsewhere and tries to find a cause, Andrew Sullivan summarizes the data, drawing from the New York Times:

Here’s the NYT summary of the data, to start with:

Homicide rates in large cities were up more than 30 percent on average last year, and up another 24 percent for the beginning of this year, according to criminologists … Homicides in Portland, Ore., rose to 53 from 29, up more than 82 percent; in Minneapolis, they grew to 79 from 46, up almost 72 percent; and in Los Angeles the number increased to 351 from 258, a 36 percent climb … Homicides in Philadelphia are up almost 28 percent, with 170 through May 9, compared with 133 in the same period last year; in Tucson, Ariz., the number jumped to 30 from 17 through May 13, an increase of 76 percent.

By any measure, that’s a huge increase. Yes, we’re still in a relatively low crime environment. But the suddenness of the rise and its scale are striking.

Clearly, now is not the time to reduce policing, and clearly not the time to eliminate policing, which some “progressives” do indeed want. For another thing is certain: reducing policing will just raise the rate of crime, especially violent crime, and will cost more lives. The increase in homicides isn’t explained by a big increase in murders by white police, but, according to stats compiled in recent years, largely by black-on-black crime.  Increasing the murder rate by reducing policing (a “solution” that both Sullivan and I deplore) will simply lead to a disproportionate loss of black lives.

Click on the screenshot to read the article:

Here are the possible reasons for the increase in murders and shootings considered by Sullivan, and why he rejects some.

a.) The pandemic.  Doesn’t seem feasible to Sullivan because lockdowns tend to reduce rather than increase crime, a reduction that in fact was observed in much of the world.

b.) Poverty caused by the pandemic. Again, doesn’t seem feasible because crimes that enrich the perp, like burglary, larceny, and drug offenses, dropped from previous years. So did “food insecurity.”

c.) “The fentanyl crisis”.  Doesn’t seem plausible because opioid peddling isn’t connected with much crime.

d. Defunding the police.  Not likely, for not much defunding has yet taken place.

But what does seem likely to Sullivan is the next hypothesis:

e.) A wariness by police to do “proactive” or heavy law enforcement following the murder of George Floyd and its sequelae, which included increased demonization of police. 

There’s no doubt that there’s a temporal correlation between homicides, shootings and the murder of Floyd, but of course correlation isn’t causation. Here, though, is a plot Sullivan presents of shots fired over time during the Floyd “era” (Minneapolis, of course, is where Floyd was murdered):

The spike in shootings followed Floyd’s death almost immediately, and has risen to double its pre-murder rate since then. Sullivan thinks that, in this case, the correlation does represent causality:

Of course, that is not causation. But it’s one hell of a correlation — and no other event seems relevant. It’s as if the Floyd murder, and the subsequent urban chaos, sent a signal: the cops are on the defensive. Which means murderers can go on the offensive. And once lawlessness establishes itself, it tends to compound. A few gang murders can soon morph into tit-for-tat urban warfare.

Sullivan supports this thesis with other data as well, including the widespread opprobrium directed toward the police, which partly explains, I think, the attrition of police forces in many places. Why be a cop when everybody hates you (“all cops are bastards”) and your job may be insecure?

After this relentless assault, regular police officers noticed. Many quit:

In Chicago, 560 officers retired in 2020 in a police department that had about 13,100 sworn officers as of March, records show. That’s about 15% more cops retiring than during the previous year, when the number of retirements rose by nearly 30%. In New York City, 2,500 cops retired last year, nearly double the number in 2019, according to the New York Police Department, which has about 34,500 uniformed officers. In Minneapolis, about 40 officers retired last year, and another 120 took leaves of absence. That’s nearly 20% of a police department.

But manpower was not the most significant factor. What truly mattered, Cassell argues, is that the police pulled back from the kind of aggressive, pro-active policing that has been shown to be most helpful in reducing fatal civilian shootings — but also most likely to lead to fatal encounters with the police. In Minneapolis, for example, “police stops and officer-initiated calls dropped more than half, use-of-force incidents fell by two-thirds while traffic-related incidents and patrols became far less common.” Residents complained that the cops were slow to come, or were in the neighborhoods with their windows up.

Plainclothes police details have been cut sharply in some places. All this, says Sullivan has taken its toll on the cops, who now “refrain from the kind of pro-active policing that can lead to exactly the kind of incidents that can become viral–aggressive intervention against armed criminals before they kill.

Now Sullivan admits that this is just a guess, but it’s at least supported by independent data, unlike my own earlier hypothesis, which was that the pandemic just made people edgy and desperate, leading to more killings.

Sullivan’s “guess” may well be right, though he hastens to add that he’s not arguing against police reform or shifting some police activities to mental health professionals.

Being a cop is a job I wouldn’t want to have, though I can see its appeal to authoritarian personalities. But it also appeals to those who want to make the community safer, for I do not believe that all cops are evil. I even believe that many cops are on an even keel, not racist, and try to do an honorable job (remember, if nothing else, that many cops are black).  But Sullivan sees a big irony here, for “defunding the police” is an official part of the Black Lives Matter agenda. So Sullivan ends this way:

This is not an argument against police reform or even against shifting some core responsibilities — mental health incidents, for example — to other kinds of professionals. It is an argument that pro-active policing has been more important in restraining crime than many have acknowledged; that removing it, before reforming the entire system, is extremely dangerous; and that elite complacency in the face of lawlessness and destruction in the summer of 2020 helped ignite a cycle of murder that is very hard to unwind. When crimes are committed with impunity, more crimes will be committed. And the victims will not be at Yale.

So this scenario prompts a question of supreme irony: what if the final legacy of Black Lives Matter is that it actually succeeds in its core goal, and that in the future, far fewer African-Americans are shot by the cops. And what if the price of this symbolic victory is, in fact, a huge increase in the numbers of innocent black lives lost to civilian murder? That’s a trade-off worth discussing, before it becomes a new norm that’s very hard to undo.

42 thoughts on “Why the big increase in U.S. murders? Andrew Sullivan has a theory which is his.

  1. The finest analyses of crime in our cities come, almost invariably, from the pen of the brilliant Heather Mac Donald who writes mostly for City Journal and has published four books of essays, all superb. She writes clearly and with truly exceptional fidelity to the best data available and to those studies most worthy of respect, the field of criminology being, unfortunately, replete with ideology, with much of its literature being purely partisan and of little, if any, academic value.

  2. The immediate result of Black Lives Matter’s war on law enforcement was an epidemic of crime, as police officers decided that aggressive law enforcement was dangerous to their lives and careers. Homicides in the Ferguson area and in Baltimore jumped 60 percent. Virtually all the victims were blacks, revealing the hypocrisy of a movement for which black lives didn’t really matter — attacks on the law enforcement and on the ‘power structure’ did…

    Sourced on the Wikiquote page for Baltimore:
    David Horowitz, “Is the Left Even on America’s Side Anymore?” (8 January 2014), National Review.

  3. If I recall, didn’t marches, demonstrations and rioting take off in the cities after the George Floyd murder. Lots of unrest every where post the Floyd murder. So shooting went way up just after and they remained high throughout this period. I am not sure I see any direct relationship to this increase in shootings and murder directly associated with police actions. It’s kind of like, selling of guns go way up after a mass murder or two. Did the police have anything to do with this increase, I don’t think so but shootings go way up as the number of guns continue to go up. Conclusion….get rid of guns and you get rid of shootings. We can discuss killings and shooting in this land till the cows come home but it is all the guns that allow it to happen. There is no place like America. In many states you can purchase all the guns you want, hand guns and assault rifles and fill your house with them. You don’t need to show anything but the money. Every two bit gangster or petty crook has weapons and they will use them in their trade. Killing people is as easy as crossing the street and often safer.

    1. If you could remove all guns then knife crime would become more prevalent, unfortunately. The UK has far fewer guns in circulation but knife crime (often related to drug gangs) is a concern.

      I don’t know what the answer is for the USA other than a decades long reduction in gun ownership by small decrements.

      1. It is much easier to kill with a gun than with a knife. Your chances of surviving a knife attack are greater than surviving a gun attack.

      2. The UK’s knife homicide rate is about the same as that of the USA. We had 275 knife homicides in 2019/2020 and the USA had 1,476 in 2019.


        (NB the British figures exclude Scotland, so you have to add on about another 10%)

        That’s not to say we aren’t worried about knife crime in the UK and so would Americans be, if it weren’t for all the gun deaths.

    2. What difference does it make how many guns a person has? I am just not sure how that is relevant. People are either armed or they are not. Nobody is five times more dangerous because they own five guns. I have lots of cars, but that does not make me more or less of a menace on the road. I can only drive one at a time.
      I also disagree with you about only needing money to buy a bunch of guns. There is no state that exempts people from federal background checks. A person prohibited from possessing firearms, due to age or felony convictions or other issues, is just as prohibited in Texas as they are in California.
      If you purchase a gun in order to sell it to someone else and you are not a licensed dealer, it is a felony. Selling or giving a gun to a prohibited person is a felony.
      The gang members who are shooting everyone in Chicago are not exploiting some gun law loophole to get their guns. Someone has to commit a felony, often several felonies, to get that gun into their hands. At a bare minimum, that person is willing to risk ten years on jail and a 250K fine. Plus, shooting someone comes with a few penalties as well.

      If access to guns was what drove all the violence, there should be lots of shootings in areas like the one I live in. I propose that criminal gang activity is what drives the violence, and much of that is related to drug sales. Having an open border with Mexico is allowing the cartels to traffic drugs with minimal interference.
      The Fentanyl sold in Chicago came through the southern border via the Sinaloa cartel. The Heroin sales in Chicago are controlled by the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
      The street gangs are just the distribution network, but according to the DEA, there are no permanent affiliations between specific cartels and individual street gangs. The Gangster Disciples and Latin Kings and all the others are competing with each other for both the wholesale product from the cartels and the end retail customer.
      I bet if you found a current graph of fentanyl overdoses in Cook county, corrected it for the recent availability of Narcan, that graph would track pretty well with the gun violence graph.

        1. Some corvairs, including a convertible and a rampside. 1936 ford pickup and coupe. A 1940 ford deluxe. a 67 El Camino.
          That in addition to the later model daily drivers. I drive an offroad modified ML55 AMG, and my wife drives a Mercedes E320.
          And there are a couple of ranch trucks.
          Also two prewar BMW motorcycles, one of which is unrestored and not running yet.
          And an RV, if that counts.
          I am not fabulously wealthy or anything, I do all my own work. Also, we are blessed with lots of room. I still have my first car (1966 corvair). I still have my Dad’s first car (1936 ford coupe).

          I brought up the subject of multiple cars and risk, because although I am the sole driver of all of these except the E320 and the ranch trucks, my insurance bills are astronomical, even though I hold only liability coverage.

          1. A neighbor had a 66 Corvair when I was a child. My father told me that the engine was in the rear. I was always fascinated by that car.

          2. They were great cars and way ahead of their time. They also had a few problems but not to the extent that Nader’s “Unsafe at any Speed” made out.

      1. One problem with owning numerous guns is if a burglar happens to burglarize your home, and finds all of the guns you own…

        1. That is a good point. It is the general practice for people with even moderate gun collections to keep them in a heavy gun safe, which is itself usually secured to the wall or floor in a robust manner. Bigger collections often reside in a vault. Vault doors from old banks are in high demand for this, installed in reinforced, purpose-built gun rooms.
          I know of no collectors who leave their guns unsecured. Not just because of the possibility of theft, but because of kids.

      2. If I thought you knew what you are talking about I would be concerned. I am not concerned. You totally false comment that all the drugs come across the border is simply not true. That is a Trump talking piece and it is crap. Someone mentioned 10,000 knife stabbings in the UK. That is nothing and the only way you get to that is to not have guns. Not regulate guns – do away with them. All I ask is do away with hand guns and assault weapons. That still leaves millions of guns in the U.S. Until this is done there is nothing worth talking about on this subject.

        1. i use to live in san diego. i can guarantee the drugs come across the border. border patrol constantly finds tunnels under the border fence that lead to warehouses. bloods and crips then move the drugs north to LA. there is no shortage of drugs in LA. and there is no shortage of illegal guns in LA. your idea of doing away with them is as unrealistic as trying to do away with drugs. have you heard of ca state senator leland yee. yee was convicted on weapons trafficking, fully automatic machine guns, lars rockets, grenades, hand guns and ammunition for all of it, he was ca most proponent of gun control. have you heard of philip luty, brit, he made a fully functioning machine gun in his garage with plumbing parts. he wrote a book, full instruction and diagrams, that book is all over the internet. you can buy it from amazon. we tried to do away with booze. 18th amendment, all it did was create organized crime, and we are still plagued by it.
          for your information, about 80% of all murders in the US are gang murders, killing over drug turf. about another 12% are related to criminal activity not directly related to drugs. one of my dear friends was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. he used a hammer. I dont know about you, but being bludgeoned to death sounds like a horrible way to go. she had no way of defending herself.

      3. Access to guns is not what drives the violence, but, very often, it’s what makes the violence lethal.

        The UK has drug gangs like the US does but it doesn’t have the same gun homicide problem. Why not? First of all, it’s really hard to get hold of a gun in the UK. It’s virtually impossible to obtain a hand gun even illegally. Secondly, just carrying a gun in a street makes you liable to a prison sentence. Result: even criminals don’t normally bother to carry guns.

        1. i’l bet the UK doesn’t have 40,000 criminal gangs with 5milion members of which 2 million are currently in prison and most of those will get out. so, you don’t have drug gangs anywhere near like the US has.
          I have a cop friend in England who told me the criminals rent guns from other criminals, and it is not that difficult to get one. you also don’t count your murders the same way we count our murders, you count a murder as a murder only after you get a conviction. we count a murder as a murder right from the get go.

          1. You might say it’s not that hard to get a gun, well it is compared to the USA. Your five million gang members don’t have to rent guns off each other do they? Did your cop friend in the UK mention that he can do his job without carrying a gun himself?

            You’re also totally wrong about the way homicides are counted here.

    3. I doubt that much of the additional gun crime was committed by the legal buyers of new guns in last years’s buying spree (which was probably a reaction to unrest and lootings). Don’t the cities with the homicide rise have very strict gun laws? Getting rid of guns in such cities means regularly stopping and searching people in violence plagued neighborhoods for illegal weapons. That is exactly the kind of policing that was done much less as a result of BLM

  4. I am inclined to agree with Sullivan’s guess, and with Jerry’s theory about the pandemic, with an additional reason. The pandemic anxiety apparently caused an extraordinary spike in gun sales, to the point now I think the the US has become a giant circular firing squad. Stand Your Ground laws, and the Supreme Court, contribute to this as well. The phrase “Shoot first, ask questions later” now applies to far too many Americans who have guns. As a former prosecutor, I have long opposed guns of any kind, and favor repeal of the Second Amendment so that reasonable gun control laws can be enacted. But repeal of the Second Amendment will not happen for very long time. Many thousands, perhaps millions, will have to die first.

    Despite having been the victim of an assault by a burglar in my home in the middle of the night, (who turned out to be a former client from my Public Defender days) I will never own a gun.

    1. Out of curiosity, David, if you don’t mind saying, the home burglary by a former client — was it coincidental or targeted (either as an act of revenge in response to some perceived professional slight or because the perp thought you’d make for a ripe victim)?

        1. Thanks, David. I know public defenders take their fair share of verbal abuse from clients, and I’ve heard of physical threats being directed at them, but I’m unaware personally of any physical retribution being enacted against them.

          I’m glad to hear that this wasn’t a Cape Fear situation, and you seem not too much the worse for the wear.

  5. Now we finally have a clear example of structural racism in the police: reluctancy to proactive policing that disproportionately harms Black people.

  6. I am certainly no expert on law enforcement, but from my observations and reading many other advanced nations in Europe and Asia use law enforcement techniques that do not center around the use of service revolvers. They are still able to pursue and apprehend criminals and solve crimes using methods other than pointing a gun at it. If US police officers suddenly are unable to prevent crime and enforce the law just because they are feeling “wary” of using their guns, then perhaps what is needed is training and development of new skills and methods that don’t require pulling out a gun at the slightest bit of fear by said officers. I know in some countries your basic cop on the beat doesn’t even carry a gun, only specialized LEOs with advanced training carry guns. Certainly using more brains and less bullets would lead to better outcomes from my point of view. This may not be possible if the “defunding” crowd wins out, but it seems like the the objective and guiding principle should be “reducing police involved shootings” not “how much it costs”.

    1. I don’t disagree with your call for better police tactics, but when you mention policing in “other advanced nations” you should keep in mind that those nations don’t have civilian populations that are armed to the teeth.

    2. We’re still feeling the effects of a presidential election where the loser’s followers insist ‘he was robbed,’ we can’t properly investigate the attempted Capitol Coup, and each state has handled the pandemic whatever way the wanted.

      Even with 70% of us vaccinated, still wondering if the anti-waxers will screw things up, or if we might get a Covid 21 variant. So many folks I know (me included) are still waiting for “the other shoe to drop,” suspecting that the shoe wearer wearer is a centipede.

    3. If I understand Sullivan correctly, it is not that cops point their guns less, but engage less overall, with or without guns drawn. Although not proven, I find Sullivan’s argument highly plausible.

      1. I’m very skeptical. Have you ever known criminals to study police behavior as part of their decision to commit crime? Sure, if police patrol much less it gets known and crime rises, but that takes time. I doubt many criminals commit crime now because they have less fear of being killed in a George Floyd-style incident or that they can accelerate the getaway car without worrying about taking fire.

    4. ‘Correlation isn’t causation, but it is a bloody good starting point”,
      (I can’t remember who said that, can someone help?)

  7. Sullivan has tweeted this of interest:

    “In retrospect it’s pretty clear what’s going on. And pretty clear why the MSM will not cover the reality. It would hurt their narrative, and they can’t have that.

    Quote Tweet
    Jeryl Bier
    · 19h
    Replying to @brithume and @sullydish
    Interestingly enough, @voxdotcom ran a story on this phenomenon back in April. It was based on a still-to-be-peer-reviewed study, but preliminary findings were stark:


  8. My theory is that the crime rate is because of the increase in gun sales which, in turn, is due to the Big Lie causing a great deal of unease in the population. Many are vaguely preparing for the possible coming civil war. Although the gun sales increase may represent a small rise in the total number of guns in circulation, more crimes are committed with guns acquired recently. I base this last bit on the fact that those who have just bought a gun, whatever the reason, are in a gun-using state of mind ad the weapon and ammunition are ready at hand.

    I have no numbers to back any of this up, of course.

    1. “I have no numbers to back any of this up, of course.”


      The biggest spikes are not in places you’d consider strongholds for Trump, nor places where people are piling up guns because they think the election was stolen. The spikes are in places that normally suffer from higher crime, but now that crime is even higher because police have been backed off by political pressure from tactics that help keep crime down.

  9. If we ended the ridiculous, evil (and racist) War on Drugs the cops would have WAAAY more resources to stop actual, real crimes. Keep in mind the actual medical harm of the drugs we prohibit are in direct opposition to their treatment at law.
    Opiates, for instance, when used correctly are about the safest drugs in the pharmacopeia. Psychedelics and marijuana are virtually harmless. This while alcohol and cigarettes are our biggest killers.

    Opiates when used in the WoD (unknown quality and dosage) context are deadly. But we prohibit them in all circumstances.
    Our WoD is our worst idea since slavery and …. unless you know a bit about the actual drugs themselves and their MEDICAL effects and the way the law treats them – nobody thinks this.
    It is quite counter-intuitive.
    D.A., J.D.

    1. Nobody thinks this? I think many think that the effects of the War on Drugs are worse than the drugs themselves, That is why we have those quite successful programs in Amsterdam, Zurich and Portugal.

  10. It’ll be interesting what the analysis turns up once the figures get divorced from the various political narratives that colour any real time analysis (it’s hard to separate out our political leanings from how we see events unfold). In 5 – 10 years time, I can imagine that all the conjectures being thrown out there will be at best a part of the final story, but I’d he very surprised if the facts easily fit any narrative being thrown around.

    You’d have thought the failures of political narratives in the past to adequately capture what sociologists eventually find through rigorous analysis would make people hesitant to try. Though, I suppose, politics happens in real time, and careful rational study is only performed in hindsight. It’s hard to fault people for fighting for a better world (as they see it) now even if it’s gonna be mostly done on speculative interpretation.

  11. It’s almost as if a nationwide social movement that demonizes police and idolizes (violent) protests, looting and general social unrest, which is supported by main stream media and politicians, leads to more crime! Who would have thought?

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