America has a violence problem. And it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Late last month, on April 22, a gunman in Washington, D.C., opened fire at a college prep school from across the street, riddling it with more than 200 bullets and wounding four people. A mall shooting in South Carolina that same week wounded 10. A shooting on a Brooklyn subway earlier that month wounded over a dozen. New Orleans recently reported its bloodiest weekend in nearly 10 years.
Overall, recent data shows that the U.S. experienced its largest-ever recorded annual increase in homicides in 2020, compared to 2019, according to statistics from the FBI. The homicide rate rose nearly 30% in 2020 and increased again by 5% in 2021. Violent crimes such as mass shootings and assaults have also increased since 2019.
The pandemic is taking a toll on Americans
In interviews with Yahoo News, several experts attributed the spike in violence to three factors. They say the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all aspects of life, forcing nationwide lockdowns that led to increased stress and anxiety among the population.
Dr. Howard Kurtz, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Southwest Oklahoma State University, believes that as people were locked away from the outside world, violence and frustration ensued.
“There was this plague mentality that has to take a toll on people,” Kurtz told Yahoo News. “Then you start seeing increases in violent crime with a lack of social interaction.”
While COVID cases have plunged in the past few months and most lockdowns have ended, new variants and continued mask restrictions are still disrupting everyday life. Two years after lockdowns began, people still cannot agree on mask guidance, and many are reaching their breaking point, Kurtz argued.
“We have people that are on edge. People that don’t want to wear masks on public transportation, in crowded indoor settings,” he said. “The climate lends itself to people taking matters into their own hands.”
Political polarization, distrust in institutions fuel discord
Experts believe another reason for concern is the growing political polarization and distrust in U.S. institutions. Alongside this distrust is also a sense of lawlessness stemming from police violence. Americans' lack of trust in law enforcement, education, the government and the economy feeds social discord, Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College told Yahoo News.
“The factors over the last couple of years have begun to erode the social contract that many people had formed,” he said. “As a result, you see conflict in society.”
In many ways, Americans are feeling frustrated with the U.S. government, the economy and their fellow citizens. According to a March study from Gallup, roughly three-quarters of Americans are dissatisfied with where the country is heading. This has risen significantly since 2002, where the situation was nearly reversed, the study shows.
Political polarization is pushing a narrative that Americans need to take matters into their own hands. Liberals and conservatives are slowly beginning to see each other as enemies rather than fellow Americans, Dr. Kurtz claimed.
“You have this group on the right that wants to take back the country and a group on the left that wants to defund law enforcement,” he said. “People who disagree are going to lash out. Sometimes very violently.”
Guns play a significant role in violent crime
Looking back at many violent crimes that have happened in the past year, a common theme is gun violence. According to the FBI, over 38 million guns were sold in 2021, an increase of over 10 million since 2019. Violence can quickly turn into a homicide with the presence of firearms, according to a University of California at Irvine criminology professor Charis Kubrin.
“It’s a really potent combination of both rise in violence and sales in guns,” she said. “Absent a gun, you might just have an assault. Absent a gun, you might just have a robbery.”
Gun violence has dominated headlines in the past two years. The laws vary by state, the United States is one of the few countries where you can legally purchase and carry a firearm.
“We’re in an environment where you can just buy a gun,” Kurtz said. “The more frightened we are, the more likely we are to buy more guns.”
Where do we go from here?
It’s all not bad news. Studies show murder rates are still 30% lower than they were during peaks in the 1970s and 1990s. As rates of COVID-19 continue to drop in 2022, experts say a trend in the pandemic’s effects on crime and violence may follow.
“The reduction of COVID restrictions will take some of the pressure off all our shoulders,” Kenney said.
Josh Meyers is a student at Syracuse University.