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The overall murder rate in the U.S. may finally be dropping, early data suggest

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This morning, Independence Day was ushered in by news of more mass shootings around the country. In Fort Worth last night, a shooting at a Fourth of July celebration killed three people and injured eight. In Philadelphia, five people were killed in a shooting spree yesterday. The alleged shooter is in custody. Still, there may be some good news on the horizon. The overall national murder rate appears to be coming down. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste joins us to talk about it. Hi there.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Martin, let's start with what we've seen over the weekend going into the July Fourth holiday. Is this a continuation of the kind of shooting that plagued this holiday last summer?

KASTE: We haven't seen anything quite as lethal as that terrible shooting last year at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., you may recall, that killed seven people and injured 48. But once again, what we're seeing here is people who are shooting in and around crowds. Besides those shootings you just mentioned, we also saw incidents over the weekend in Wichita and Tulsa. And then there was the gunfire at a block party in Baltimore where 30 people were hit by gunfire, two of them killed. Here's the Baltimore mayor, Brandon Scott, at a press conference in the early hours of the morning after that shooting early Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BRANDON SCOTT: This was a reckless, cowardly act that happened here and that has permanently altered many lives. And I want those who are responsible to hear me and hear me very clearly - we will not stop until we find you, and we will find you.

SUMMERS: Shootings jumped sharply during the pandemic. Does this mean that we're still in the middle of that surge?

KASTE: Well, if we look specifically at murders - that's all criminal homicides - things may actually be getting better now. Official national statistics for murder take some time to compile - more than a year - but we can get a sense of the trend right now if we look at the cities that report their murder counts in near-real time. And one person who has been doing this is a crime analyst named Jeff Asher. He's collecting murder data from 100 cities as they post them. We're talking about New York, LA and smaller cities such as Omaha, Louisville. And in a new article on Substack, he says that, right now, if you look at those numbers, midway through the year, those cities have seen murder drop by 11%.

JEFF ASHER: There's still six months to go. There's certainly a lot of uncertainty about what it means exactly, but the big sample points to a large decrease nationally so far.

SUMMERS: So, Martin, how big a decrease does he think we might see in 2023 when we finally do get those national murder numbers?

KASTE: Well, because his sample is of cities, which tend to have more gun violence, the statistical changes are more dramatic. There's more of a swing. The national number may end up being something like a drop of maybe 7% - in that ballpark. But even so, he says if that would be the final number, it would still be very significant.

ASHER: Murder tends to go up and down by a couple of percentage points each year. If it does decline at the rate that it's at least suggestive of so far from big cities, it would be historically large.

SUMMERS: And, Martin, help us understand here, how do we square this apparent downward trend with all of this news of mass shootings in the last few days?

KASTE: Mass shootings are terrible, and they're very visible, but they account for just a small percentage of all murders. So what we might be seeing here is that the factors that drove up murders overall in 2020 and 2021 are now easing off, whatever those factors are. And there's a lot of argument about that, but, you know, we have people back in school. Work is more constant. Police departments may have adapted to some new realities, but the one thing that doesn't seem to be dropping yet is what cops sometimes call casual gunplay. You might recall what the mayor of Baltimore said in that clip. He said that the shooting was reckless. Well, that kind of thing increased with the pandemic, and it's not going away. The number of mass shootings, where four or more people are killed or wounded - the real-time numbers we have for that are not going down this year. And unfortunately, that's what we've been seeing over this Fourth of July.

SUMMERS: NPR's Martin Kaste, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.