Why's That: Is crime "so much worse these days" in Kalamazoo?
Fatal shootings in Kalamazoo are at a record high this year. We asked experts how this compares to national and historical trends, and whether buying a gun for personal protection is the answer.
A few months ago, we asked for your questions about gun violence. WMUK listener Julie Kelemen told us she often hears people talking about how crime has gotten "so much worse these days.”
“People can use that as a justification for thinking that they need to buy a gun,” Kelemen said. “What I wonder is, is crime really that much worse now than it once was?”
Kelemen said she’s never owned a gun and didn’t grow up with them. But lately, she has wondered if she should buy one.
“Because sometimes I'm out and about and, you know, it would be nice if I'm going to my car in a parking lot, and it's nighttime and there's nobody else around,” she said. “Sometimes I think it would be nice to maybe have that. I don't know. I just don't know.”
It makes sense that Julie’s friends are worried about crime. According to the FBI, the U.S. murder rate went up 30 percent from 2019 to 2020...and stayed high during the pandemic. Here's some visual analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice. Kalamazoo has had a record 20 homicides so far this year. And yet, as we’ll explore, most of that crime isn’t random. And some types of crime are down.
Historic lows, then a surge
Whitney DeCamp is a sociologist at Western Michigan University. DeCamp said national homicide rates reached historic lows in the decade before Covid, which only made the pandemic surge look higher. DeCamp said that in broad terms, the national homicide rate rose in the 1970s and 80s, then fell throughout the 90s.
“There are still articles today that speculate on reasons why,” said DeCamp. “You know, after 30 years of studying it, we're still not completely sure of all the reasons for that.”
An article that ran in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Dec. 24, 1992, reported the city had 14 murders in 1991 and just two in 1992. Fourteen homicides is notably fewer than this year, but more than the 10 Kalamazoo had in 2019 just before Covid.
According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, in 1991, the national murder rate was about 10 murders per 100,000 people in the U.S. By 2013, that rate had plummeted to about four in 100,000. During 2020’s crime surge, the rate rose to almost eight murders per 100,000, which is high, but still shy of the early 90s peak.
DeCamp added that media stories about violent crime can make people perceive that it’s always on the rise.
“The old adage, is, if it bleeds it leads, and, you know, there's a reason for that,” said DeCamp. “They're more compelling stories, at least, that's the perception.”
There is an exception to the falling national crime rate. Mass shootings have almost tripled since the 1980s and 90s. But they account for a small percentage of total murders. And Americans are more likely to die from suicide or a drug overdose than any kind of homicide.
The pandemic's "melting pot of disaster"
DeCamp said that just as we don’t know why murders went down for years, we don’t know for certain why they went up during Covid. But people being stuck at home may have played a role.
“Most of the time when there's a homicide it’s people who know each other,” he said. “So that going up in a situation where people are spending more time with people they know, isn't super surprising.”
David Juday, the assistant chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, had some ideas about why Kalamazoo shootings went up so much during the pandemic. Juday explained that the city’s gun violence prevention programs were mostly shut down during Covid, as were the courts and many mental health services.
“So it was kind of this melting pot of disaster for the entire community,” he said.
Juday said officers are seeing more rounds fired during shootings, which could be why more of the shootings are fatal. They’ve also seen an increase in illegal gun modifications, which can turn handguns into automatic weapons. He agrees that most of the time, the perpetrator knows the victim. He says often a feud begins on social media and then escalates.
“What happens when somebody puts something on social media? Everybody sees it, right?” said Juday. “And if you don't do something about it, what does it say about you?”
According to Juday, most shootings in Kalamazoo are committed with an unregistered or stolen gun. He says KDPS seized 515 firearms in 2022, more than ever before.
Juday stresses that overall violent crime—which includes assault and robbery—is down 17 percent in Kalamazoo from this time last year. It seems to be decreasing nationally, too. Just-released FBI crime stats for 2022 show murder went down 6 percent and overall violent crime went down almost 2 percent. National crime statistics for 2023 will not be released until next year.
Though nothing can undo the losses the community has already experienced from gun violence, prevention programs are now mostly up and running again in Kalamazoo. Juday is hopeful that these will work, and homicide rates will return to pre-pandemic levels in the next few years.
Gun ownership and personal safety
This bring us to Julie’s other question: does owning a gun protect you from being the victim of a crime?
Gun purchases surged during the pandemic. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that sales went up 64 percent, based on background check statistics. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that by the middle of 2021, 11 million people had firearms in their home who did not have them before.
“We had a lot of people come in for the first time,” said Alec Felker, a manager at On Target Guns in Kalamazoo. “Especially for handguns that were just interested in self-defense, interested in getting into the Second Amendment.”
A study by the Pew Research Center found that more than 70 percent of gun owners say personal protection is a major reason they own a gun.
But according to Ryan Bates, of End Gun Violence Michigan, “Having a gun does not make you safer. It is more likely that it will hurt you than that it will ever be used to help you.”
A different study published last yearin the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people living in homes with firearms are twice as likely to die of homicide than those living in homes with no firearms. Bates says the perception of perpetually rising crime is fueled by gun manufacturers.
“The gun industry has a real invested interest in making people feel unsafe, so they can try and sell more guns,” said Bates.
To recap: nationally homicides did increase in the last few years, but are still lower than they were at our nation’s peak about 30 years ago. Kalamazoo is seeing record high gun violence, but KDPS thinks that prevention efforts will bring the level down in the next few years.
When I shared this with our question-asker Julie Kelemen, she said she’d already made up her mind against buying a firearm.
“I refuse to be frightened by crime, so much to the extent that it curtails my life, it limits what I like to do, or that it makes me go out and buy a gun,” she said.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text the national Lifelineat 9-8-8.