The Complex Causes of the Shooting Wave in Major American Cities

NYPD officers investigate a crime scene in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 4, 2020. (Lloyd Mitchell/Reuters)
George Floyd protests are not the only factor in the violent summer of 2020.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A weeks-long wave of shootings in major American cities continued over the Fourth of July weekend, with dozens of people shot in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and elsewhere. The trend began after Memorial Day and the civil unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which led to mass demonstrations, looting, and riots across the country. Police departments find themselves facing mass protests and demands for reform. Additionally, the unrest is occurring in the middle of a pandemic that has caused mass economic dislocation. All these factors combined have contributed to the current shooting wave, and despite the efforts of police and gun-violence-intervention workers, the wave shows no signs of slowing down.

Chicago has seen more than 330 homicides since the start of 2020, most of them shooting victims. At this rate, the city could surpass the number of homicides recorded in 2016, regarded as one of the most violent years in Chicago in the past two decades. In June 2020 alone, there were 424 victims of shootings, up 75 percent from June 2019.

New York City registered 250 shooting victims from June 1 to June 28, up 157 percent from the same period in 2019. The city has not seen that many shooting victims in the month of June since 1996, when 236 victims were recorded. The violence has continued into July, with 63 victims of 44 separate shootings during the holiday weekend.

However, the wave of shootings in several major cities since the start of the George Floyd protests does not coincide with a general rise in other kinds of crime. In Atlanta, the number of rapes and robberies was lower in June 2020 than in June of the previous year, even as Atlanta has seen 94 shooting victims, more than twice the 46 victims recorded in June 2019. Overall crime is also down in Chicago even as shootings are up, according to the city police department

A rise in shootings while levels of other crimes remain steady is not, in fact, an unusual occurrence. This phenomenon occurs yearly in New York, according to Christopher Herrmann, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It’s kind of weird,” Herrmann told National Review: “In New York City, we get a 30 percent increase in shootings in June, July, [and] August usually, but we don’t get a 30 percent increase in robbery or a 30 percent increase in assault.”

Tamar Manasseh, a Chicago resident whose nonprofit Mothers Against Senseless Killings attempts to reduce gun violence in the Englewood neighborhood, said that her city sees a wave of killings every summer even without urban unrest. “Everybody knows that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it’s killing season in Chicago,” Manasseh said. “Some people have hurricane season, some people have tornado season — we have shooting season.”

Representatives of several nonprofits interviewed for this article generally agreed that urban poverty constitutes one of the main drivers of gun violence, and that this year the “shooting season” was amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. According to Peter Cunningham, spokesman for the gun-violence-prevention nonprofit Chicago CRED, the coronavirus was a more important factor in driving up shootings than the Floyd demonstrations. The effects of the pandemic have so far been disproportionately felt among poor residents of urban areas, many of them African American or Hispanic, who may have struggled with unemployment or have risked exposure to coronavirus while working at an essential job. Broad swaths of the population have also become stir-crazy after sweeping school closures and lockdown.

“What we see is the product of the pressure cooker opening up,” said Adam Alonso, CEO of the Chicago-based Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development (BUILD). In this environment, shooting attacks can occur simply because of insulting social-media posts.

“Social-media beefs . . . are real to people now,” Alonso said. “Social media plays a role in aggravating and agitating the violence.” Additionally, “there is an issue of gang crime as it relates to the [drug] business, as it relates to . . . leadership disputes within a faction or a gang.”

Herrmann speculated that shootings have risen at the end of lockdowns because of the intentional nature of the crime. “Shootings typically aren’t random crimes,” because “the shooter has a target that they want to shoot,” he said.

The majority of those are drug-related, gang-related, [and] those conflicts aren’t going to go away because of the COVID shutdown. . . . But if you look at all those dealings, all those retaliatory hits — they’re still out there, they’re just kind of in the queue waiting to happen. And now that the reopening is happening, and more people are out and about, I think people are starting to “take care of business.”

It should be noted that a drastic rise in shootings has not occurred in Philadelphia, for example, which recorded 184 shooting victims from June 1 to June 28, compared with 176 victims in May 2020. (Shootings in Philadelphia have risen compared with 2019, but that rise started before the demonstrations.)

This could indicate that the demonstrations did not lead to more shootings in all metropolitan areas of the U.S. Nor have the demonstrations caused a general rise in other kinds of crime, apart from the looting and rioting seen across the country during the last weekend of May.

However, the rise in shootings in Chicago and New York, for example, are very serious, and the Floyd demonstrations exacerbated the situation in those cities, ironically in part by drawing officers away from high-crime areas. “In New York, a lot of the protests took place in Manhattan and a lot of the more popular, high-profile areas,” Hermann said. “So what happens is, when you have a protest, you’re going to have to get a lot of cops from a lot of other areas in a city. . . . A lot of these resources got sucked out of these high-crime neighborhoods, which would normally be heavily patrolled.” The result has been a proliferation in shootings.

Residual contempt for the police, as well as fear of catching the coronavirus while on duty, have also made officers skittish about doing their work. In Minneapolis, police-union members have said that morale in the force is low, and several officers have already resigned in the wake of the protests. The city has seen a spike in shooting victims as well as in reports of gunfire since the end of May. Chicago police have made 55 percent fewer arrests in June 2020 than in the previous year, with traffic stops down 86 percent. Union officials have also pointed to significantly lower morale among officers. In Atlanta, police have seized 80 illegal firearms from the streets in the past month — down from 148 in June 2019. Traffic stops in June 2020 dropped 87 percent from the previous year.

With the activity of police forces curtailed or taken up by protest duty, some of the burden of violence prevention has fallen on nonprofits such as Chicago CRED and BUILD, which employ city residents to stop altercations before they occur. These employees have typically been involved in gun-related violence themselves, giving them firsthand knowledge of how to dissuade individuals from committing crimes. They also work side by side with police officers on crime prevention.

The recent violence has been severe enough that some elected officials have openly criticized contempt for the police. “We’re fighting the enemy within when we are shooting each other up in our streets,” Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a press conference following the July 4 shooting of an eight-year-old girl. “We’ve had over 75 shootings in the city over the past several weeks. . . . You can’t blame that on APD [Atlanta Police Department].”

It isn’t clear what could immediately slow the current shooting wave other than a strong deployment of police, violence-prevention workers, or both in concert. But increased patrols by police seem unlikely given the political pushback such a move would cause.

Editor’s Note: This article originally claimed that there had been no rise in violent crimes in Los Angeles since the protests. That is incorrect. We regret the error.

Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and a trained violist.

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