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WHAT TO KNOW AHEAD OF TONIGHT’S DEBATE
It’s true that violent crime has risen sharply so far in 2020. Early in the pandemic, The Trace reported that shootings were a notable exception to a broader coronavirus crime drop. A number of subsequent analyses have confirmed the trend lines of rising violent crime even as many other categories have dipped. The bipartisan National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice just released some of the latest numbers: It found sharp rises in homicides (53 percent) and assaults (14 percent) between June and August compared to last year; most other crimes were way down. Part of the surge: a significant jump in mass shootings. Shootings that have left four or more victims dead or wounded are on pace for the highest total since Gun Violence Archive began counting seven years ago. As we have reported, those incidents — like gun homicides and nonfatal shootings overall — are disproportionately affecting Black communities.
Also true: The national violent crime rate is still close to historic lows. The FBI’s newly released numbers for 2019 show violent crime ending last year down half a percentage point. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which captures incidents not reported to police, also recorded a drop from 2018 to 2019 after a four-year rise. Overall, the survey found that the rate of people reporting violent crimes has declined by 75 percent since 1993.
This year’s surge in violence has defied partisan lines. Criminologist Jeff Asher looked at the year-to-date change in homicides in the biggest cities with Republican mayors and found that murder was up by 26 percent in those places through July — the same rise he found in big cities overall. Flashback: In 2016, then-candidate Trump pinned that year’s jump in homicides on Democrats, similar to his refrain this year. We looked at the data, and found his claims were false then, too.
The vast majority of protests for racial justice have been peaceful. More than 93 percent of the demonstrations associated with Black Lives Matter movement since George Floyd’s death in May were non-violent, according to data from a tracking initiative by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University. The numbers on police escalation and violence at demonstrations: Law enforcement has used force in over half the events where they were involved, according to the researchers. The militia variable: Of close to 13,000 demonstrations since May (associated with BLM or not), the tracker found 55 events that included politically motivated violence and scores of others where armed individuals were present.
Federal crime crackdowns like those Trump has pursued don’t have a record of reducing homicides over the long term. In July, the Justice Department deployed Operation Legend, which uses federal resources to ramp up prosecutions of gun and other cases. In 2017, Trace contributor Mark Obbie looked at how sending more gun cases to federal court hadn’t led to fewer gun homicides in St. Louis and elsewhere. The takeaway: “Researchers, in fact, long ago concluded that the long prison sentences and elevated incarceration rates that result from increasing federal prosecutions have scant influence on violent crime rates.”
The framework behind Joe Biden’s plan for reducing community gun violence. The ex-vice president has pledged to create a $900 million fund that supports evidence-based interventions in 40 cities suffering high homicide rates. It draws heavily from the analysis and arguments of former New York prosecutor and Justice Department official Thomas Abt, who estimates that such an investment could save thousands of lives. You can read Abt’s framework for reducing shootings in this Trace excerpt of his book, “Bleeding Out.”
Is the debate framing around “race and violence in our cities” wrong to begin with? “It is telling that the only subject where [debate host Chris] Wallace mentions race involves violence perpetrated by or in the name of Black people, a framing made clear by including the phrase, ‘in our cities,’” writes veteran journalist Steven A. Holmes. Other commentators have said the framing echoes the president’s unfounded narrative of protests driving this year’s rise in violence.