You would be hard-pressed not to see stories about rising violent crime rates. News coverage, legislators, and law enforcement conflate the existence of crime as proof of a crime wave. These stories understandably tap into public concern about safety, fueling the misperception that violent crime in the U.S. is worse now than 30 years ago (Axios-Ipsos).
“Crime is a pretty potent opportunity right now because it’s been dramatically in the news for the last few years,” said Lisa Miller, a Rutgers professor who studied how criminal justice issues can mobilize voters (VOX). “It’s a visceral issue.”
Violent crime—homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—has steadily declined since the 1990s. Still, it remained a top issue for voters during the 2022 midterms, with public perceptions maintaining crime had worsened nationally and locally within the past year (Pew Research, Gallup).
• Support organizations like YEAHPhilly that work to reduce the impact of violence on Black youths in West and Southwest Philadelphia.
• Learn about your state’s gun laws and where it ranks based on policy and gun-related deaths.
Republican messaging leaned heavily on these concerns. According to AdImpact, Republicans spent more than $150 million on crime-related ads, compared to $105 million on the economy and inflation (Vox). Such attacks showed Democrats being soft on crime and weaponized the reforms introduced during the 2020 civil unrest. Though critical first steps in curbing the burden and injustices felt within the legal system, for some voters, bail fund reforms and the defund the police movement became synonymous with crime (Vox). Despite the connection being unfounded and many major cities increasing their police budgets, including those that briefly cut police funding, such claims persisted (Brennan Center, Bloomberg).
The messaging from the party of “law and order” was misleading, though with an element of truth. There was an increase in violent crime in 2020, but it occurred in both blue and red states throughout urban, rural, and suburban areas. Homicides increased by approximately 30% nationwide, with murders rising “roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats” (Brennan Center). That year, the per capita murder rates were 40% higher in the 25 states former President Donald Trump won than those who voted for President Joe Biden (Third Way). States like New York, seen as an example of rampant crime and urban violence, fell below the national average for murder rates. And red states Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, and Missouri were more than twice the average (CDC).
Still, violent crime has declined considerably over the past three decades. The homicide rate dropped more than 50% from 1990 to 2014, so relatively, crime is only slightly up compared to historical trends. This undermines the rhetoric that liberal urban cities have a crime problem worsened by criminal justice reform. And it underscores how political polarization of issues prevents effective resolutions.
The exact cause for the rise in violent crime rates in 2020 is difficult to pinpoint as the pandemic was a significant disruption causing economic and mental strains and making healthcare and support even less readily available. However, gun access was accessible.
Looking closely at homicides during this time, 79% of U.S. murders involved a firearm, a 14% increase from the previous year (Pew Research). Gun sales had been growing for over a decade, with peaks following mass shootings. And in 2020, nearly 22 million firearms were sold following the onset of the pandemic (The Trace). And when examining which states had the highest number of gun-related deaths, including murders and suicides, a familiar pattern emerges: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, and Wyoming (Pew Research). Similarly, these states have weaker gun laws.
For example, Mississippi is a shall-issue state, meaning local law enforcement must issue a concealed handgun license if the applicant meets specific qualifications, like being 21 or older and a resident (Giffords). However, since it is also a permitless concealed carry, anyone can carry a hidden, loaded gun in public without a background check or police oversight. Mississippi is considered to have one of the weakest gun laws in the country, with the highest homicide and firearm death rates of all 50 states (CDC, CDC).
When we look at who is affected by gun violence, we see how in Mississippi, Black people are five times more likely than white people to die by gun homicide (Everytown). This follows a larger national trend, with Black people in the U.S. being 10 times more likely to die by gun homicide. And how 73% of trans women’s deaths were from gun violence (Everytown Research). Additionally, we see how children and teens are most vulnerable in states with weaker gun laws and how law enforcement is 75% more likely to be fatally shot in states with “F” gun law scores than in states with “Cs” or “Ds” (American Progress).
Misperceptions about who and where violent crime affects and how it manifests are a great disservice to those still profoundly affected, whether there is a wave or just a brief uptick. And if the family values, tough on crime, and “Back the Blue” legislators wanted to serve the people their labels suggest, they would invest in reducing the violent crime rate and handle gun violence in this country beyond crime ads and thoughts and prayers.
• Public perceptions of violent crime rates fail to align with reality.
• Despite political messaging, crime is not just a blue or red state nor an urban or rural occurrence.
• States with weak gun laws are hit hardest with gun violence.