January 30, 2021

Not Losing Sight of an Alarming Increase in Gun Violence and Emerging Nationwide Responses


Dear PERF members, 

On this Saturday morning, as I look back on where the policing profession has been for the past year, much of our attention has been focused on how policing will have to evolve.  The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended how police agencies operate. Then the George Floyd incident lit a fuse, and people have been calling for necessary changes, now.  

But something else is happening that is being reported by the media, but isn’t getting the kind of sustained national reaction that one would expect -- city after city is seeing a dramatic increase in homicides and shootings.

A PERF survey in November showed an overall 28% increase in homicides, with much sharper increases in cities like Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Louisville; Portland, Oregon; and others. And a second PERF survey in January showed that guns are at the heart of the problem, with sharp increases in homicides committed with guns, and even more dramatic increases in nonfatal shootings.

And while appropriate attention is focused on reform efforts when it comes to police use of force, there is a concomitant need to also recognize that we need to zero in on what is driving this violence nationwide.

The situation today reminds me of the “Gathering Storm” of violence that PERF uncovered in 2006. Back then, police chiefs were telling us about increases in homicides and other violence in their cities, but it took a year for these trends to show up in the FBI’s UCR system. We held a series of meetings and produced several reports about the increase in violent crime and what police were doing about it.  (A year later, the FBI data came out and confirmed what we had been saying.)

The encouraging news today is that everywhere we look, PERF is seeing police departments taking steps to respond to this significant uptick. Look at what’s happening in New York City: gun recoveries are way up.  The New York Daily News headline on Wednesday said it all: 

And New York isn’t alone. Even though the pandemic has forced many agencies to scale back some of their proactive policing efforts, our recent survey found that gun recoveries are up in nearly 60% of agencies. In Los Angeles, for example, vehicle stops decreased by 25% last year, but the number of guns recovered during those stops rose by 58%. The LAPD made 35% more gun arrests in 2020 than in 2019.

A terrible new trend:  Ghost Guns

Here’s one new development that we’re starting to hear more about. “Ghost guns” are becoming a serious problem, especially in jurisdictions that have strong gun control laws, like California.  Convicted criminals and others who are prohibited from legally purchasing a firearm are simply making their own guns. They can buy gun parts on the Internet and put the parts together to create guns that are not recorded and traceable.

This week, LAPD Chief Michel Moore told us that ghost guns now make up 40% of the firearms the police recover.

And ATF Acting Director Regina Lombardo told us that while California is probably getting hit with ghost guns more than any other state, ATF is seeing ghost guns across the country. And because ghost guns are sold as kits with individual parts, they skirt ATF’s regulatory authority.

It’s so brazen, there’s actually a company called Ghost Guns, whose motto is “GHOST GUNS™ SPECIALIZES IN PRIVATE WEAPONS BUILDS YOU CAN DO YOURSELF.” 

Take a look at their website. It’s like buying something on Amazon.

While ATF is looking at what it can do from a regulatory standpoint, there needs to be federal legislation to prohibit these ghost guns.

As a 60 Minutes story explained, “There's no background check and no serial number, making ghost guns invisible to police and almost impossible to trace when used in a crime. At least 38 states and Washington D.C. have seen criminal cases involving ghost guns. There were at least four mass shootings, violent police shootouts, high-profile busts of gangs making and selling ghost guns on the street, and cases involving terrorism and white supremacists.”

Causes of today’s gun violence

PERF members are telling us that they see several causes of the spikes in gun violence:

Domestic violence:  This is one area where the COVID-19 pandemic clearly seems to be a factor.  People have been cooped up in their houses for close to a year, and facing unprecedented challenges with COVID-related problems, starting with lost jobs and financial strains. In some cases, women who might otherwise seek a shelter are staying in these untenable relationships, because shelters are problematic in the age of COVID.

Street violence:  The causes of homicides and shootings on the street are complex.  As Chief Mike Moore told us, in Los Angeles, many of the “normal levers” that police agencies use to tamp down violence no longer exist. Courts aren’t open because of COVID.  Jails have been trying to release large numbers of inmates to reduce COVID risks. Repeat offenders are released on bail. Probation, parole, and diversion programs to help offenders are being scaled back.

So with the “normal levers” gone, the balance has shifted.  In big cities like New York and Los Angeles, police in the past were able to make it risky for gang members or other offenders to get caught carrying a firearm.  But now, with courts and prosecutors largely shut down, that calculus has shifted. Now, many offenders on the street figure that they would rather be caught by the police carrying a gun, than caught by a rival gang member not carrying a gun.

And that’s what’s happening in states with strong gun laws.  In states with weak laws, we’re told that basically everyone who wants to carry a gun is carrying a gun.

And the nation is awash in legally purchased firearms. Director Lombardo of ATF told me, “Last year, we saw over 40 million lawful gun sales in the country. It’s the highest number ever, and the highest number of first-time buyers.”

Hopeful signs:  Police are being strategic about addressing gun violence

Fortunately, in our interviews with police chiefs for our Daily Reports, we’re hearing that chiefs are actively working to reduce gun violence, in spite of the constrictions that COVID has brought to policing. Departments are stepping up, and thoughtfully. 

Look at Tucson. Yesterday, Assistant Chief Kevin Hall told us in our Daily Report that even though Arizona is a wide-open state in terms of gun laws – “It’s legal to sell firearms at a yard sale here,” he said – the Tucson Police Department is launching a comprehensive evidence-based approach to gun violence. That means they are focusing on hot spots policing, focused deterrence, place-based interventions, and other strategies that have proved effective across the nation.

In Oklahoma City, Chief Wade Gourley told us that they disbanded their Gang Enforcement Unit, and instead are focusing on shootings with a new Violent Crime Apprehension Team. No matter what time of day a shooing occurs, analysts are available to immediately start the process of culling through various databases to try to identify the shooter.

“For most of the shootings we’re working, we’re either identifying or apprehending a suspect within about 24-48 hours,” Wade told us.

Medium-size cities are also responding.  Cedar Rapids, IA Chief Wayne Jerman told us that more than half of their 10 homicides in 2020 were related to gangs. “They’re not Bloods, Crips, or MS-13,” Wayne said. “They’re just neighborhood kids who have grown up and choose to settle their disputes with firearms.” With schools closed due to COVID, these kids have a lot of free time, and they get into disputes about disrespect. So Cedar Rapids police are using hot spots policing and social network analysis to identify youths at risk of committing or being victims of violence.

Right now, it feels like the policing profession is like a prize fighter who’s been knocked down a few times. First they got hit with COVID, then protests and riots during the summer and calls for defunding. And in the middle of these  unprecedented challenges, violent crime begins to spike.

But what we have to come to learn about working cops is that they know what’s important. And nothing is more important than preventing the next homicide and shooting. So that is what they are focusing on in all these cities.

Of course, the police cannot do this alone. We will need the rest of the criminal justice system to step up: courts, prosecutors, probation officers, and others. But this will not happen until COVID begins to come under control. And   importantly, police must strengthen our relationships with those communities that most need us.

My appreciation to all our PERF members who take the time to fill out our surveys and do these interviews with us. You are giving us accurate and timely information, and we’re striving to get it out in our Daily Reports.