Most California counties experienced an unprecedented rise in the number of homicides in 2020, with many seeing jumps of 25% or more. These jumps were driven by gun homicides, and guns played an increasing role in robberies and aggravated assaults.
Homicides climbed around California and the nation in 2020. Focusing on the year of the assault causing the death—rather than the year it was reported to the FBI Uniform Crime Report—statewide data shows that homicides jumped from 1,658 in 2019 to 2,161 in 2020. This is the biggest annual increase since reliable statewide record-keeping for crime started in 1960, an increase of 30.3%.
Among the 36 counties with at least 100,000 residents and consistent homicide reporting in both 2019 and 2020, only 4 counties saw a 2020 decrease: Monterey, Ventura, Contra Costa and Santa Barbara. Only 2 of those counties—Contra Costa and Ventura—are among the state’s 15 largest counties.
Of the state’s 15 largest counties, 13 saw homicide rates go up more than 10%. In nine of those counties, rates climbed at least 20%—and within that group, 7 counties jumped by 30% or more, including 4 where rates surged by more than 40%. The biggest by percentage was Fresno County, where homicides climbed from 55 to 94, or almost 71%.
Gun homicides account for most of the increase in almost all large counties, ranging from about half of the overall increase (Santa Clara) to more than the overall increase in homicides in some counties. For example, in Orange and San Diego Counties, the rising number of gun deaths was equal to the overall rise for homicides. In Fresno, San Mateo, and Sacramento Counties the number of gun deaths rose more than the total increase for homicides (which is possible when there is a decrease in some other means of death).
The role of firearms is also growing in robbery and aggravated assaults. While almost three-quarters of all homicides in 2020 are gun deaths, 25% of robberies and almost 22% of aggravated assaults involve a gun—up from 2019 by 1.2 and 4.8 percentage points respectively.
The share of assaults involving guns went up in 14 of the 15 largest counties, with Contra Costa rising almost 10 percentage points, from 21.3% to 31%. San Joaquin County, however, dropped slightly—by 0.4 percentage points, from 23.3% to 22.9%. And while robberies statewide fell by 14.2% in 2020, the share of robberies involving guns rose in 10 of the 15 largest counties.
Determining underlying factors to the troubling and tragic loss of lives will be challenging, but it is fundamental to reversing the recent jump in homicides. Exceptional pandemic conditions along with economic hardship, civil unrest, changes in policing, a turbulent election year, and escalating gun sales may all be contributing factors, although specific evidence has yet to be found. Current data around violent crime data points to the need for further examining and understanding the role of access to guns.