There is an epidemic of bad behavior sweeping the country. In 2020, homicides increased by a record-high rate. Last year, pedestrian and vehicular deaths went up by a record-high rate. There have been more attacks in hospitals, schools, and stadiums and more unruly airline passengers than any time on record. What on earth is going on? Today’s guest is Olga Khazan, a staff writer at The Atlantic. She and Derek talk about how America lost its damn mind and review the most obvious and most interesting theories for what’s really behind this bad-behavior epidemic. Part of their conversation, which explores what might be behind a surge in violent crime, is excerpted below.
Derek Thompson: Olga, so as you wrote in The Atlantic, Americans are kind of losing their minds. All sorts of antisocial behaviors are on the rise. And I wanna start with the most significant antisocial behavior that is on the rise, and that is violent crime. What is the evidence we have that violent crime is rising?
Olga Khazan: So in 2020, the murder rate actually rose by nearly a third, which is the largest increase on record. There was a smaller increase in 2021, but it still did go up. And aggravated assaults are also up, which is the most common form of violent crime, and car thefts spiked around 14 percent last year. A lot of cities have seen carjackings, which is when someone takes your car from you while you’re sitting in it, which is really scary and is another form of violent crime.
DT: So car thefts, when a car is being stolen and you’re not in the car, those are up. Carjackings, when the car is being stolen when you start off in the car, those are up. Assaults are up and homicides are up.
A bit of history here: In the last half century, there’ve sort of been three distinct periods of violent crime trends. Act 1 of this story is that violence was surging in the U.S. between the 1960s and 1990s. Then you have act 2, which is that violence has been declining in America since the 1990s, or at least from 1990 to about 2014. And then you have act 3, and that is the act we’re in right now. Violence has stopped declining. It started to slowly rise in 2014, 2015, 2016. And then in 2020, as you said, it absolutely surged by the highest rate on record. What are some reasons why violent crime might be surging now?
OK: Yeah, well, one pretty obvious reason is just gun sales. Gun sales really spiked in 2020 and in 2021, and more people are being killed with guns. In 2020, police recovered twice as many guns within a year of purchase as they did in 2019. And this was new to me, but that’s called a short time-to-crime window, which suggests that someone bought the gun and then kind of immediately used it in a crime. So one reason we’re seeing more violent crime is that more people are buying guns and using them.
DT: Last year I spoke to Patrick Sharkey, a professor at Princeton who studies violent crime. And I wanna read you what he told me in an interview and get your reaction to it. “In 2020, everyday patterns of life broke down, schools shut down, young people were on their own. There was a widespread sense of a crisis and a surge in gun ownership. People stopped making their way to institutions that they know and where they spend their time. And that type of destabilization is what creates the conditions for violence to emerge.” This is gonna be a theme, I think, of our episode: destabilization. People’s behavior is aberrant right now because their lives are aberrant. The headline of your great piece is “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” Well, we’re acting weird because the world got weird.
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Olga Khazan
Producer: Devon Manze