CRIMEWhat Can We Learn from the Nation’s Historic Decline in Murders?

By Champe Barton

Published 11 January 2024

The U.S. endured a spike in gun violence during the pandemic, but it’s subsiding in many places. A researcher puts the latest homicide statistics into context — and warns lawmakers not to become complacent.

The end of 2023 provided the first clear signal that the wave of violence that swept the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to abate. 

Statistics compiled by the consulting firm AH Datalytics, founded by the crime researcher Jeff Asher, show that in 175 cities, murders fell by an average of 12 percent compared to 2022. In Los Angeles, murders dropped more than 16 percent; in Houston, more than 20 percent. In Philadelphia, where the pandemic period saw killings climb to an all-time high, they plummeted more than 24 percent. 

According to Asher, while some cities have yet to report their final figures for the year, the sample suggests one of the steepest national year-over-year homicide declines on record. 

A deeper look at the numbers shows that the decline was uneven across the country. Murders increased in several major cities like Dallas, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. And in many others, violence still has yet to fall to pre-pandemic levels. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings through news and police reports, the United States still saw more gun homicides in 2023 than in 2019, and firearm homicides among children aged 18 and under have increased nearly 70 percent through the same period.

It remains unclear what factors are responsible for the decline, or whether increased attention to community gun violence interventions since the pandemic has had an impact. To help make sense of this landscape, we spoke to Joseph Richardson, a gun violence researcher at the University of Maryland and director of the Violence Intervention Research Project at Prince George’s Hospital Trauma Center. He offered cautious optimism about the success of cities like Baltimore, and he warned that complacency on the part of state and federal legislators could risk stifling the past year’s progress. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The murder rate has dropped precipitously from 2022. What explains the decline?
We have to put into context that we experienced one of the greatest spikes in homicides in 30 years alongside COVID-19. People are getting excited about this reduction, but it may be just a natural decline to where we were prior to the pandemic, as the economic, social, and psychological instability that people were experiencing during that period returns to normal. Now, why was the decline so precipitous? I don’t think any criminologist has a conclusive answer to that yet.