The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, violence in America has suddenly increased. But that’s far from the whole story.

As the use of deadly force by police once again roils the nation, the number of fatal shootings by officers has increased in the first six months of 2016. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Five officers and counting in Dallas. Two black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. Forty-nine club-goers in Orlando.

It’s hard not to feel like we’re experiencing a surge of gun violence in the United States. And we are – but in the grand scheme of history, not as much.

Fatal shootings by police are up in the first half of 2016, as compared to the same time last year, according to a new Washington Post analysis. January through June of this year, these fatalities totaled 491, compared to 465 last year.

Officer shootings have also been on the rise over the past year. Including Thursday's shooting in Dallas, a total of 25 officers were killed by guns on the job this year, excluding friendly fire. This number is up 39 percent from the same time period in 2015.

And mass shootings are up as well. According to Mother Jones’ mass shooting database, year to date, 58 people have been killed this way, nearly five times more than the same time period last year. It’s worth noting though, that Orlando is the sole driver of this effect. Had it not occurred, the number of fatalities would have gone down between the two years.

Even gun fatalities that don’t make the news – garden-variety homicides – have been increasing. Data released by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of police chiefs in the country’s largest cities, found that homicides in the first three months of 2016 increased 9 percent to 1,365 over the same time period in 2015.

But focusing on this one-year uptick ignores the larger trend of steadily declining violence in the United States. Between 1993 and 2013, total gun homicides were nearly cut in half, primarily during the 1990s. Over the same time period, violent crime as a whole went down by about 75 percent. The increases in fatalities we’ve seen this year don’t come close to reversing the trend.

The decades-long decline has been driven by many factors, including increased police presence, more police access to technology, a decline in alcohol consumption and lead poisoning, and a better economy. Other theories include mass incarceration keeping criminals off the street, assault weapons bans, concealed-carry laws, the decline of crack cocaine, and the legalization of abortion two decades earlier.

Like any historical trend, deciding how much context to consider can change our view of the situation. Yes, we’re seeing an uptick in homicides. But it’s a small reversal of a two-decade decline. But that decline is just a return to homicide levels before the huge boom in crime in the 1960s and 1970s, which still hasn’t been wholly reversed.

But homicides being on the decline doesn’t make last night’s shooting any less of a tragedy. “We’re hurting,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said Friday morning. “Our profession is hurting. Dallas officers are hurting. We are heart broken.”

At least five Dallas police officers were killed and nine wounded July 7, after a peaceful protest over recent police shootings. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)