In the first few months of the pandemic, many people flocked to gun shops based on concerns that the economic and social upheaval caused by COVID-19 shutdowns would increase crime. Sadly, those fears ended up being justified, as a well-documented surge in murder has swept the nation the past two years.
According to the FBI, homicides in the United States increased by an astonishing 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, the largest single-year increase ever. The FBI has yet to release information for 2021, but we know from data in major cities that while the increase has fortunately slowed, homicide continued its rise in 2021.
This surge was most pronounced in major cities. Los Angeles, for example, saw 350 people killed in homicides in 2020, a 36 percent increase from 2019. In 2021, that grim figure rose to 397, an additional 13.5% jump from 2020’s already-high total.
Philadelphia, though, is an interesting case study of a city dealing with the same problems Los Angeles is, but with a new pro-gun variable thrown in. To their credit, the Philadelphia police department keeps superb records of their crime data and makes that data public with weekly updates, making the city ideal for tracking changes in murder over time.
In 2020, as expected given the national surge, homicide in Philadelphia rose 35.5 percent. Similar to other cities like Los Angeles, the trend continued in 2021 with another 11.5 percent increase. But something else also happened in 2021 in Philadelphia: it became far easier for residents to get a concealed carry permit.
Thanks to a lawsuit over what amounted to a shutdown of its gun permitting operation, Philadelphia was forced to not only resume processing permits but also streamline the process of getting one. Shortly afterward the application could be even completed entirely online.
What resulted was an unprecedented rise in the issuance of carry permits. As Philadelphia Magazine explains: “From 2017 through 2020, the number of license-to-carry applications in Philadelphia held about steady, ranging between 11,049 and 11,814 applications each year. But in 2021, 70,789 people applied for licenses to carry guns.” And over 90% of those applications were approved.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the over six-fold increase in permit issuance, incidents of armed citizens defending themselves from criminals became more common. A simple web search will reveal plenty of local news articles covering recent defensive uses of firearms in the city. This increase is not merely anecdotal. According to 6ABC, “In just the first three months of , more people have been shot in defensive shootings than in each of the last three entire years. If defensive shootings continue at the same rate through the rest of the year, Philadelphia is on track to have more than five times as many of these incidents as last year.”
It appears Philadelphians, now that the city has been forced to make obtaining a carry permit a far less restrictive process, are more frequently defending themselves with firearms.
But does making carry permits so much easier to obtain have a dark side? Gun-control advocates often predict that relaxing carry laws will lead to “wild west” violence. If they’re correct, then 2022, the first complete year in which the new carry permit process will be in effect, should be on track to see another dramatic rise in homicides.
According to the Philadelphia police department’s data, that has not happened. In fact, the city has seen the exact opposite outcome to this point. As of May 1, 2021, Philadelphia had seen 172 homicides. This year, in the same time frame, there have been 148.
To be sure, that isn’t a breathtaking drop, but it is significant, representing a roughly 14 percent decrease. At minimum, it’s clear that predictions of the expansion of carry rights leading to greater bloodshed have not come to pass so far. Over 50,000 more residents of the city have carry permits now than would have at the City’s previous pace of issuance, and homicide is down, not up. There isn’t enough evidence yet to credit more citizens carrying for homicide in the city finally falling, but it certainly has not made the problem worse.
Additionally, it’s not entirely clear how Philadelphia PD counts “homicides” in its data, and whether things like justifiable homicides that were self-defense are included. Since the police release this data every week, it’s likely that all homicides are counted, as there would be little time to determine which homicides are justified or not. That could mean the decline in homicides this year is even more significant than at first glance.
Still, everything isn’t perfect in Philadelphia. While homicide is down, robberies with a gun are up dramatically, with an almost 50 percent increase over this time in 2021 (robberies not involving a gun are up 13.5 percent). However, while we can’t tell from the data, it seems improbable that many (if any) of these armed robbers were the same people who followed the legal process to get a carry permit.
And, of course, this trend could very well reverse at any time. Perhaps 2022 will still end up with more homicides than 2021 despite the current downturn.
Thanks to the huge surge in robberies, overall violent crime offenses are still up 5 percent overall in the city. If it weren’t for the robbery surge, however, overall violent crime would be down. Besides the homicide decrease, rapes are also down by about 33 percent, and aggravated assaults involving a gun are down almost 6 percent. Further, the overall 5 percent increase in violent crime pales in comparison to the 22.5 percent increase in property crime the City has seen so far this year.
Turning back to homicide specifically, there is some indication that the increasing amount of people getting carry permits in 2021 is at least correlated with a decline in homicide. Recall that in 2021 Philadelphia saw “only” an 11.5 percent rise in homicide, after an astronomic 35.5 percent rise in 2020. But by the middle of 2021, the year still looked like a repeat of 2020. Specifically, by the end of June 2021, there had been a 31.1 percent increase in homicide over the same time period in 2020. In other words, the city was on track to nearly match 2020’s pace of increase in the homicide rate. But then, the situation improved and did so quite rapidly. By the end of September, the homicide rate was only 17.8 percent worse than its prior-year pace, and it fell further to the previously mentioned 11.5 percent increase at the end of 2021.
It could be that as more and more people got carry permits in 2021 and local news filled up with anecdotal examples of armed citizens successfully defending themselves against violent assault, criminals began to think twice. While a lot more data will be needed to confirm whether that is the case, the early signs have been encouraging.