Last week, my daughter and I masked up and went to the cinema to see Steven Spielberg’s revamped version of West Side Story. The film is pretty good—though the singing, at times, leaves something to be desired. But one part of the plotline struck me as conspicuously quaint: that of the single gun in circulation between the two rival gangs.
The rumble between the Jets and the Sharks is terrifying, and the imagery of clashing gang members in the salt-filled warehouse is dazzling in its intensity, capturing the raw fury, the hatred, and, yes, the fear exhibited by the teenagers squaring off against each other. Spielberg captures the drama first of fists, then of knives, and, finally, of guns—or rather, of a gun.
In 1957, when the classic musical premiered in Washington, D.C., the murder rate in the United States was about 4.5 per 100,000. Data from earlier in the decade showed roughly 8,000 murders in a given year. That was a murder rate of less than half of what it had been in the first few years of the Great Depression, at the culmination of a 20-year upward trend in murders during the period that encompassed World War I, Prohibition, and the vast economic dislocation triggered by the Wall Street crash of 1929.
America’s murder rate rose again from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, peaking in 1993 at 9.5 per 100,000—fairly close to where it was in the years immediately following the economic collapse unleashed in 1929. But by 2012 it had decreased by half, down to 4.5 murders per 100,000 people.
Today, the murder rate is turning sharply upward once more: It is roughly eight per 100,000. The number of people killed per year has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, rising a historically unprecedented 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, and increasing significantly again in 2021. Many major cities are now seeing murder rates that surpass even the darkest, most violent years of the crack wars in the 1980s and early ’90s. On the West Coast—the terrain over which this column wanders—Portland has seen record murder rates in 2021, with more than 80 people killed in the first 10 months of the year. Seattle has also seen sharp increases in gun deaths. In Oakland, the number of murders increased 40 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and have increased significantly again this year. Statewide, California’s murder rate increased 30 percent in 2020, and has continued its sharp rise through 2021.
In much of the country, murder rates are right back to where they were at the peaks of 90 years ago and, again, 30 years ago.
These days, however, there’s a very real risk that murder rates won’t plateau but will just keep heading north, fueled by a lethal combination of too much psychic and economic unraveling caused by the pandemic, and by America’s quarter-century-long gun-buying spree. By the end of 2021, there were over 400 million guns in America, with roughly 81 million Americans owning these weapons.
The idea of one gun circulating between two large rival gangs, as in West Side Story, is laughable today. Gang members don’t share rare, individual, guns anymore; instead, they saturate communities with high-powered weaponry, with predictably lethal consequences. Meanwhile, non-gang-affiliated gun owners don’t buy the sorts of pistols you can hide away in a pocket; instead, they focus on semiautomatics, high-powered, high-velocity rifles that can injure or kill dozens in a single mass-shooting spree. Witness the rise of armed paramilitary groups who have so ostentatiously entered the political fray in recent years.
In the first 51 weeks of 2021, over 20,000 Americans lost their lives to gun violence, and another nearly 40,000 were shot and injured. Just in the six days from December 13 to 19, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, 350 people were fatally shot in the United States.
Progressive criminal justice reformers spent much of the past two years parsing the numbers to show that talk of a crime epidemic was much exaggerated; after all, the incidence of most categories of crime continued its decades-long decline in the first two years of the pandemic.
Increasingly, however, while the data behind that position remains true, it’s also an inadequate response. With murders and other violent crime soaring, dismissing this as simply a statistical aberration amidst generally positive crime data is a bit like asking, “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
In the 1980s and ’90s, public fear of violent crime led to a backlash against liberal criminal justice reforms. The result was financially and morally catastrophic: the rise of a mass incarceration society in which politicians and electorates alike cast common sense to the wind and embraced unprecedentedly punitive, and ham-handed, sentencing strategies such as “three strikes, you’re out.” These strategies ended up destroying the lives of millions of people, breaking low-income and minority communities, and, over the course of several decades, emptying public coffers of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Today, there’s a similar risk that a disgruntled, scared, and increasingly victimized public will lurch rightward again on criminal justice issues. That is why it’s vital that progressive states, and progressive organizers, do everything in their power to turn the tide against this violence, and against the almost casual usage of guns that’s taking place around the country these days.
As the year winds down, that’s what California’s governor is trying to do. The state already has some fairly tough gun control laws on the books—around the purchase of certain categories of weapons and against bulk purchases of ammunition. But those laws remain precarious, vulnerable to the legal whims of conservative justices. Now, however, Newsom is urging California legislators to take a page out of Texas’s books and pass a law allowing private individuals to sue those involved in the manufacture and distribution of guns currently banned under state law.
Sure, the proposal is a gimmick. But if Texas can succeed in barring access to abortion through legal tomfoolery, why shouldn’t California try its hand at using the same methods to limit access to high-powered weaponry? After all, no one benefits when gun violence and murder rates soar. It creates unfathomable pain for victims and their families; it corrodes the public’s sense of safety and trust in government; and it makes the morally vital project of progressive, systemic, criminal justice reform that much more difficult to implement.