Apr 13, 2022 - Podcasts

America’s surge in violent crime

A gunman opened fire in a busy Brooklyn subway Tuesday morning, a mass shooting that created even more anxiety in a city already worried about a rise in crime. It’s not just in New York. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 131 mass shootings this year.

  • Plus, why May 9th is a crucial date in Vladmir Putin’s playbook.

Guests: Bryan Walsh, editor for Vox's Future Perfect and Axios' Glen Johnson.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, April 13th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: why May 9th is a crucial date in Putin’s playbook.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: America’s surge in violent crime.

A gunman opened fire in a busy Brooklyn subway yesterday morning, a mass shooting that's left at least 29 people injured. The violence created even more anxiety in a city already worried about a rise in crime. And it's not just in New York. According to the gun violence archive, there have been 131 mass shootings this year so far. Yes, I said 131. I reached out to a former colleague Bryan Walsh who's now editor of Vox’s Future Perfect to help us understand what we know about violent crime across the country. Hi, Bryan.


NIALA: Bryan, we actually talked to you about this last fall, about why violent crime surged.The most recent data was from the CDC shows that in 2020 homicides nationwide were up 30%. That's the largest increase in recorded history. But what do we know anecdotally about 2021 and this year so far?

BRYAN: Well, what we know so far is that the situation has gotten worse. While we don't have full national stats on 2021 homicides, that won't come later this year from the FBI, a study from the council on criminal justice, they looked at 22 cities nationwide and they found that homicides increased 5% in 2021, over 2020, and also 44% over 2019. There's no real sense that this surge in gun violence, it really started during the pandemic, seems to be abating in any way. In fact, it's really, it's getting worse.

NIALA: So you're talking about gun violence. Are we seeing other kinds of crimes spike also?

BRYAN: We've seen a lot of violent crime spike that might be shootings that don't involve deaths. It might be felony assaults, things like that. We haven't really seen property crimes increase, which was also the case during the pandemic as well. This really seems to be a case of violence done from one person to another or to multiple people, as in the case in New York, using guns. And it's hard not to look at the conclusion. Look, the fact that gun purchases went up hugely during the pandemic we have obviously millions upon millions of guns in this country and people for reasons that honestly criminologists are still trying to figure out, seem to be much quicker to use them than they did before the pandemic began.

NIALA: In New York Mayor Eric Adams, himself a former police officer, has responded by putting more officers on the subway systems that was in response to the crime that had already been happening. A lot of people were asking yesterday, does that help?

BRYAN: Certainly police presence can help in the short term and it can be a deterrent more than anything else. But the reality is that you've increased police presence we're still seeing higher numbers of crimes on the subway. And what's really important to keep in mind and this is especially true with, with transit is that since fewer people are using it, it feels less safe. And I think that's also happening in public spaces more generally. Definitely during the pandemic crime felt worse, but there are fewer people on the streets and so that I think really feeds into a sense of unsafety, which is what people are experiencing in New York to a large extent and also a lot of other studies around the United States.

NIALA: This week President Biden announced a plan to track so-called ghost guns that are hard for police departments to trace properly. Do we know how much legislation like this could make a difference?

BRYAN: It could make a difference on the margins but the issue really is that there simply are so many guns in the United States, already. Many of them obviously legal, and a lot of those homicides are committed with legal guns. So that might help somewhat in cracking down on certain kinds of crime. But there's something happening in United States that just makes people faster to use violence. And it's really hard to figure out how to stop that, frankly. You know, it was hard to figure out how to bring down gun violence to the degree we did historically from the 1990s up into the pandemic. We don’t fully know why that happened either. This American rage that seems to be on the streets and seems to be bubbling up in ever greater amounts. Trying to deal with that that's harder than dealing with ghost guns or dealing with gun control or putting more police in the streets. Is this something about us as a people that's gone seriously wrong and it finds its most violent and dangerous expression in these kinds of shootings.

NIALA: Bryan Walsh is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect. Thanks Bryan.

BRYAN: Thank you.

NIALA: In a moment, why the next month of the Ukraine war is especially important to Vladimir Putin.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

May 9th is a major Russian holiday, where the country celebrates its World War II victory over the Nazis. That means the next four weeks will be a crucial and possibly even more dangerous period for the war in Ukraine. Here to explain why is Axios politics editor Glen Johnson. Glen, before we get to May 9, can you update us on what the Pentagon has said? They're monitoring reports of Russian forces deploying chemical weapons. Do we we know more about that?

GLEN JOHNSON: Well, we know is that there's an investigation underway and given the battlefield conditions, it's probably going to be some time until there's a real conclusion about it. The suspicion is so heavily rooted in Russia's past behavior. And it's part of what we've been hearing about this Russian brutal playbook of warfare.

NIALA: And the question is how much more brutal that will get if as the Kiev Independent reported Russian troops are being told the war must end by May 9th. Do we know if the U.S. intelligence community has also heard this?

GLEN: I interviewed a senior Defense Department official last week over the Pentagon. And that person told me that they have the same sense. Not that the war is going to be over, but this political parameter is going to affect the execution of the military campaign. In a story I wrote over the weekend, I interviewed former Army Colonel Alexander Vindman, an infantry officer in Iraq, and he told me that under normal circumstances, we should be seeing what we saw before the initial invasion on February 24th. That is forces regrouping, reequipping rearming, and actually waiting out the mud season, when, area moves from winter to spring, there's this interregnum of literal mud and it makes it very hard to execute military maneuvers in that time. But that's not the case. These satellite photos that we're seeing, one showing an eight mile long convoy of heavy trucks and artillery pieces heading from the area around Kiev to the Eastern part of the country, um, around the Donbas shows that they're not really doing what a military strategists would have them do, but more what a politician would have them do.

NIALA: So why is May 9th so important in Russia?

GLEN: Well, part of what we've seen actually driving this is Vladimir Putin's rich sense of history and agreement that Russia hasn't been respected for the sacrifices that it's made. And that includes tens of millions of losses. 20 to 1 for our greatest generation in World War II, from the Russian armed forces. So this is a victory day. And if you fast forward to 2022, Putin launched this campaign in February, saying that he wanted to "de-nazify" Ukraine, you know, using this historical precedent for what he was doing today. Of course, this "de-nazification" that Putin talks about has no basis in fact. It's much more of a justification than an explanation of what's going on. And so the theory is, and the intelligence lends credence to it, that he wants to try and be able to claim some sort of marginal victory by May 9th of this year.

NIALA: Given all of this, how is the international community preparing for May 9th?

GLEN: Well, there's a race underway. There's a race between Russia, which is repositioning its forces, rearming them, and the West, which is trying to get in as much advanced weaponry as it can to the Ukrainians before the battle is joined and try and repel the Russian advance.

NIALA: Axios politics editor, Glen Johnson.Thanks for joining us.

GLEN: Thanks for having me on Niala.

NIALA: And by the way, for more on what's going on inside Russia, you should check out the latest episode of our sister podcast, How it Happened: Putin's Invasion. The most recent episode out is called "The view from Russia."

That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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