Meanwhile, it has become clear that many Americans do not feel safe. In the past year, there has been a massive increase in gun sales among people from all backgrounds. More than 23 million guns were sold in 2020, a 60 percent increase from 2019. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry’s trade association, estimates that 8.4 million people purchased their first gun in 2020. Industry experts say this includes an unexpected number of women and African Americans. These increases are so large that the nation is experiencing a shortage of ammunition that shows no signs of abating.
Experts say a confluence of the global pandemic, economic recession, and the summer’s riots and protests over the killing of George Floyd contributed to the gun-buying surge. No matter the reason, however, it’s clear that safety is top of mind for many Americans.
One can only hope things go back to normal as the pandemic wanes, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It may be too early to make a judgment on a clear trend line, but homicides in Philadelphia are already 55 percent ahead of where they were at the same point last year. Chicago murders were up 46 percent from the previous January, while murders in 2021’s first 10 days in New York were more than double the same period in 2020. January’s frigid weather normally leads to fewer murders than in other months, so the dramatic numbers bode ill for warmer parts of the calendar.
It has been decades since crime has been a national issue. Years of high murder and gun-violence rates led to a national crackdown in the 1990s. Cities followed New York’s lead in adopting new police tactics while states and the federal government put more criminals behind bars for longer stretches. As a result, crime — especially violent crime — plummeted throughout the decade and continued to drop subsequently. By 2010, the murder rate was less than half its level in 1991, contributing to the urban renaissance that has made places such as New York and D.C. hubs for young professionals and immigrants.
Those with long memories, however, can easily see a parallel between 2020’s crime spike and the 1960s. The urban riots of that era coincided with a dramatic surge in crime. Murder rates increased by 50 percent between 1963 and 1970 and continued to rise into the 1970s. Popular culture captured the public’s fear with “The French Connection,” the Dirty Harry franchise and television shows featuring cops fighting a never-ending battle against crime and lawlessness. Millions of people left New York, Detroit and other cities for homes in the suburbs.
The crime spike also changed our nation’s politics. Richard M. Nixon invoked “law and order” to win the White House in 1968, and Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1966 in large part because of his Democratic opponent’s inept handling of the 1965 Watts riots. Bill Clinton recaptured the White House for the Democrats in 1992 in part because he offered a “tough on crime” persona. The bill he shepherded through Congress, which then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) backed, has been derided on the left in recent years for having disproportionately harmed minorities. Back then, it was viewed as politically essential for Democrats to escape the image of being more interested in criminals’ rights than in law-abiding citizens’ safety.
We are far from the crime levels of earlier decades, but national and urban leaders should keep this history in mind as they look ahead. It’s essential that we strive to eliminate bad actors in policing and the excessive use of force. At the same time, they must also devise strategies to keep our streets and neighborhoods free of violent crime.
Democrats nationwide will bear the brunt of striking this balance in the years ahead, because they run the federal government and most of the nation’s large cities. They will surely benefit if they can strike the right balance. If they don’t, ambitious Republicans will run a reboot of the 1960-era “law and order” campaign — and will probably see it work just as well today.