One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, the capital of Texas is nearing the end of its deadliest year on record in 2021 as cities nationwide are experiencing a rise in homicides and gun violence incidents that began last year when the pandemic tightened its grip on the US.
Fueled by what both authorities and community leaders say is the easy access to guns, Austin has recorded 88 homicides so far this year, shattering the previous high of 59 in 1984.
Chris Harris, a member of the Austin Justice Coalition, a community-led organization addressing criminal justice reform as well as economic and social justice, said most of the violent incidents that occur in the city involve people “who know each other.”
“If it’s two people who know each other, clearly there is some contact that has risen to a point now that is being resolved violently instead of being resolved peacefully,” Harris said.
Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon called the increase in violent crime “disappointing,” especially for a historically safe community.
“When you see the numbers spike like this and we’re trying to figure out exactly why that’s happening,” Chacon said, “there’s no clear-cut answer. We haven’t found that one trend that we can really pin this on.”
Austin is part of a worrying trend facing the nation. More than two-thirds of the country’s most populous cities have seen more homicides in 2021 than last year, a continuation of the troubling increase in homicides that began at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, according to a CNN analysis of over 40 major cities.
The rise in violent crime is an epidemic that is happening “all across the country,” said Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, and a result of three major factors: the impact of Covid-19 on communities and first responders, the fallout of the social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, and the surge in gun sales since the start of the pandemic.
At least nine major cities have broken their previous annual homicide records with about three weeks left to go in 2021. There have been 513 homicides this year in Philadelphia, higher than the previous total of 503 in 1990. There have been 230 homicides in Indianapolis, breaking the previous record of 215 set just last year.
These increases are not isolated to any particular region of the country. Other cities with record homicide totals include Louisville, Kentucky; Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; Rochester, New York; and Portland, Oregon. Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Nashville are also on pace to reach record homicide numbers by the end of the year.
Los Angeles recorded 352 homicides so far this year, and Chicago has seen 756, with year-to-date increases of 12% and 4% respectively. In Houston, homicides are up 18% from 2020.
While one-year increases don’t always portend a significant spike in crime, almost all the largest cities in the United States have seen an increase in homicides from 2019, sustaining a sharp rise that began last year.
Spike in violent crime is the result of ‘perfect storm’
According to the 2020 Uniform Crime Report from the FBI, homicides rose 30% from 2019 to 2020, the largest single-year increase the agency has recorded since it began tracking these crimes in the 1960s.
There were more than 21,500 murders last year, a total not seen since the mid 1990s. But the murder rate in 2020 was about 6.5 per 100,000 people, about 40% below what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when homicides peaked in the United States.
“The pandemic, like community gun violence, concentrates among the poorest and most disenfranchised people,” Abt said. “So those communities are doubly impacted, not only by Covid-19, but by gun violence.”
At the same time, the institutions that are responsible for responding to violence, including police and community organizations, were also placed under stress and pressure, Abt added, referring to the phenomenon as a “perfect storm.”
Abt said the second factor is the fallout of the social unrest following the murder of Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“We’re seeing police pulling back in some cities from some of their discretionary law enforcement activities and we’re also seeing communities pulling back from their ongoing collaboration and cooperation with police,” he said. “When you have that divide between cops and communities, violence tends to go up.”
The final factor experts say is causing violent crime to go up is a “huge surge in gun sales that began at the beginning of the pandemic and has not slowed down,” he said.
A small but significant number of these guns are “ending up in the wrong hands and being used in gun crimes,” Abt added.
Fayetteville, North Carolina, Police Chief Gina Hawkins said homicides in her city are “up high” right now from 23 homicides last year to 32 this year through the end of September, representing a 39% increase, according to the city’s third-quarter crime statistics.
“People are quickly pulling a gun out and without thought of repercussions and without the thought that you are truly ending a life,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said another issue is social media “extremists” who need access to mental health resource