#18: Gun Violence & Covid-19

Table of Contents:

Gun Violence & Covid-19
A Brief History—Defining Gun Violence as a Public Health Crisis
COVID-19’s Impact On Gun Violence
The Perfect Storm of Tragedy
The Link Between Covid-19 and Gun Violence
Paradoxical Trends
Surging Gun Sales & Stand Your Ground States
Gun Death Rates and Covid-19 Death Rates
COVID-19 Aid & America’s Rise in Violent Crime

Gun Violence & Covid-19

Gun violence has always been a public health crisis. Covid-10 became a public health crisis in 2020. They have much in common. Both are contagious, ferocious, and hellacious. But their commonality doesn’t answer to the core question—what do they have in common?

We all react to mass shootings once a rarity. Now we anxiously wait for the next one. But we don’t give gun violence much thought until that next, inevitable, unpredictable act of gun violence rocks our sense of civility. Pandemics are rare. Gun violence is common. But as experts on both sides of the gun violence debate know, gun-related injuries are far more common than we think. “From 2014 to 2017, death rates from gunshot wounds in the United States increased by approximately 20%. In 2020, preliminary reports suggest that the overall rate of gun homicide and suicide increased 10%. More than 100 people died, and more than 200 were injured, by firearms every single day of 2020. Most of these deaths, as in every other year, were gun suicides.”[1]

A Brief History—Defining Gun Violence as a Public Health Crisis

The CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has studied gun violence since the 1970s. In the last twenty years, federal firearm injury-prevention research has stalled due to the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act.[2] “In 1996, the National Rifle Association—in reaction to CDC-funded studies demonstrating that firearm ownership was a risk factor for homicide in the home—lobbied Congress to eliminate $2.6 million from the CDC budget, the exact amount the CDC had allocated to gun violence research the previous year.”[3]

From 1996 to 2013, the federal government demurred on gun violence because of gun politics. Congress disarmed itself by reallocating funds for firearm injury research to the prevention of traumatic brain injuries, and the CDC ultimately ceased all firearm-related research. In a study of scientific publications related to firearms from 1991 to 2010, the number of firearm studies was fewer than other major causes of death, highlighting a detrimental result of the funding ban. The CDC provision was then expanded in 2012 to include other agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), further limiting gun violence research.[4]

Finally, in January 2013 President Barack Obama encouraged Congress to invest several million dollars to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System to all 50 states to facilitate a better understanding of the role of firearms in violent deaths.[5]

Congress relented somewhat in November 2015. It amended the Public Health Service Act to include gun violence-related injury as an acceptable area of research for the CDC. The Gun Violence Research Act failed to pass, but was reintroduced in March 2017. That effort was to repeal the prohibition of the HHS from researching gun-related violence. The National Institutes of Health also responded to the presidential directive and funded nine proposals aimed at researching firearm violence and its prevention. Politically predictable, the program has since been suspended.[6]

COVID-19’s Impact On Gun Violence

All of America felt COVID-19’S threat on their doorsteps. But few thought it would also exacerbate the ongoing public health crisis of gun violence. It intensified gun violence. In 2019 we had gun violence but no pandemic. In 2020 America saw 3,906 additional firearm deaths and 9,278 additional firearm injuries in 2020 and a worldwide pandemic. 2020 gave us a nearly 30% jump in killings. The FBI said homicide and manslaughter, via guns, went up 29.4%–the largest one-year increase since the federal government began compiling national figures in the 1960s.[7] This impacted everyone in four specific ways.[8]

  • Three in four big-city law enforcement agencies saw increases in firearm homicides in 2020. As the coronavirus has rolled across the country, the impacts of both COVID-19 and gun violence have not been evenly felt. Black Americans, while not more susceptible to contracting the disease, are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID-19 are. They are also 10 times as likely as white people to die by firearm homicide are.
  • Gun sales surged during the coronavirus pandemic. Based on the number of background checks, EverytownResearch.org estimates people purchased 22 million guns in 2020, a 64 percent increase over 2019. Unintentional shooting deaths by children increased by nearly one-third comparing incidents in March to December of 2020 to the same months in 2019. The pandemic saw millions of children out of school while gun sales hit record highs, bringing more guns into homes. This resulted in a tragic surge in the number of children accessing firearms and unintentionally shooting themselves, or someone else.
  • Domestic violence spikes during times of prolonged emotional and financial stress. Stay-at-home orders and reduced capacity in shelters left domestic violence victims trapped with abusive partners. Too many of these abusers had easy access to guns. Data from over 40 states showed about half of domestic violence service providers surveyed saw an increase in gun threats toward survivors of intimate partner violence in their communities during the pandemic.
  • Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, particularly against AAPI women. Violence against women and the AAPI community, fueled by hate, is made more deadly by easy access to guns.

The Perfect Storm of Tragedy

“A Perfect Storm” suggests violent storms arising from rare and adverse meteorological factors. In the context of gun violence and pandemics it signals horror arising out of our critical state of national affairs, stemming from negative and unpredictable factors. Covid-19 killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of us. And it profoundly affected our ongoing national public health crisis. Fortune magazine titled its June 25, 2021 cover story “The Pandemic And Gun Violence Created a Perfect Storm of Tragedy.”[9]

Fortune, an aptly named national magazine, wrote about the misfortune of isolation and economic turmoil we all felt when our 2020 pandemic rolled over us as if it were a one-thousand foot wave crashing down on us from one coast to the other. “COVID just exacerbated and worsened a public health crisis that has existed in America for years, ‘said Shannon Watts,’ the founder of Moms Demand Action, at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen digital summit on Thursday. These two things really combined to create the perfect storm of tragedy. I think we will be dealing with the repercussions of gun violence exacerbated by COVID, much longer than we will COVID itself. The impacts of both COVID-19 and the increase in gun violence were not evenly felt among Americans either. Black Americans were almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white Americans and are nearly 10 times more likely than white people to die by firearm homicide.”[10]

The Link Between Covid-19 and Gun Violence

Columbia University said, “COVID-19 Containment Measures Linked to Increase in Firearm Violence.”[11] This February 11, 2021 revelation came from the Columbia University’s School of Public Health. They reported an “Uptick in firearm violence in Philadelphia during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The rationale is based on 2020 major events—the enactment of public health policies designed to contain COVID-19—and a national reckoning with systemic racism, including widespread protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.”

We all were witness to but not complicit in COVID-19’s pandemic. We watched on large or small screens as the country came to a brutish halt in March 2020. At the same time, “Philadelphia trauma surgeons noticed an alarming trend in the incidence of firearm violence. Instead of decreasing with containment measures, firearm-injured patients were presenting at even higher rates to surgeons and trauma centers around the city. . . There was a significant and sustained increase in firearm violence in Philadelphia following the enactment of COVID-19 containment policies. During the 256 weeks studied, there were 7,159 individuals shot in the city overall. Prior to Philadelphia’s first COVID-19 containment policy, there was an average of 25 individuals shot per week, and in the weeks after that policy was put in place on March 16, that average number spiked to 46 per week.”[12]

The Seattle Times opined we should Treat Gun Violence Like Covid-19—As A Public Health Crisis.[13] “Gun violence traumatizes our youth. Adverse childhood experiences like witnessing a shooting can literally change young people’s brains and even make them more likely to harm others, thereby spreading their trauma to someone else. So, when scientists tell us gun violence moves across people and populations like a virus, they’re being quite literal. The understanding that gun violence is a public-health issue is not new. But what is new and worth exploring is the fact that 2020 gave us the template for what it looks like when we take a public-health crisis seriously. It’s one thing to declare gun violence a grave threat to our collective wellbeing. It’s another thing to treat it like one. The COVID-19 pandemic, in real time, is giving us the blueprint for how to address a public-health disaster. It’s time to treat gun violence like COVID-19.”[14]

The Hill chimed in with a damming headline, Just Like Covid-19, Gun Violence Is A Public Health Crisis.[15] “Last March, we were forced out of schools and jobs and into our homes where we were glued to the news as the COVID-19 pandemic spread like wildfire. Millions were left unable to provide for themselves or their families in the wake of these uncertain times. While fighting this public health crisis, it seemed that the issue of gun violence was put on hold. This however, was not the case. Gun violence coverage took a back seat to COVID-19 and the insurgency of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. While our national focus was elsewhere, the shootings didn’t stop — in 2020 there were more than 600 mass shootings in comparison to 400 from 2019. Just like COVID-19, gun violence is a public health crisis that plagues our communities. Without the proper legislation at the local and national level, gun violence will continue to grow and force us back into our homes once more.”[16]

At least one state recognized the need to use COVID-19 money for gun violence protection. AP News reported on June 28, 2021. “Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday that he is earmarking $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to fight gun violence and fund crime-prevention programs in the state. The money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will be used to help pay for community outreach programs, regional law enforcement task forces and specialized police positions and fund real-time access to data from rapid-DNA and ballistics testing. ‘We’ll be able to track with the forensics — track shell casings, track where this gun came from, where this car came from and be able to do this on a regional basis,’ Lamont said during a news conference at Hartford’s Saint Francis Hospital. James Rovella, the state’s commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said the funding will allow for the opening of a 24-hour bullet-casing testing center at the state crime lab in Meriden and a mobile testing kiosk that can travel to crime scenes.”[17]

Paradoxical Trends

Paradoxical means seemingly absurd or self-contradictory. One way to use the word in context would be—By glorifying acts of violence they achieve the paradoxical effect of making them trivial.” Clearly, some in America glorify acts of violence. Gun glorification has been with us for centuries. One writer put it this way. “Gun glorification is a cultural problem. Americans have a problematic and unhealthy relationship with guns. Gun glorification is the belief embedded in our culture that power and safety are derived from guns. In this country, we put guns on a pedestal and prioritize firearm access over access to human needs. This makes guns extremely easy to access — easier than housing or medical care. The U.S. is just 4% of the world’s population but owns about 40% of guns owned by civilians globally. In our culture, guns are what make you ‘a real American.’ Gun ownership is so deeply connected to personal and national identity that the idea of taking away guns feels, to some, like taking away their sense of self. Indeed, the use of guns is how America stole land and got its power as a nation in the first place.”[18]

At the risk of over-simplification, it isn’t just guns that some glorify, gun violence is glorified in small segments of American society. The NRA is not violent, just political. Hunters are not evil, they use guns for sport and rarely kill one another. Almost every gun enthusiast can be pigeon holed in one way another, but they number in the tens of millions and don’t relish gun violence or brandish their weapons at political events cherished by the far right.

Violence of any kind, with or without guns is a public health crisis. What many think oxymoronic is the phrase “Guns Don’t Kill People—People Kill People.” This notion is framed around the belief that there is a need for “legitimate violence.” In January 6, 2020, while few knew about COVID-19’s pandemic, at a Richmond Virginia event, a banner brazenly claimed “Guns Save Lives.” The event drew a crowd estimated to be around 22,000 people. For them, the draw was to protest opposition to Democratic lawmakers’ proposed gun restrictions. “According to media reports, many of the attendees were draped in semi-automatic rifles and military-style gear, organized militias marched down streets, and a ubiquitous bright orange sticker read Guns Save Lives. The protesters gathered in Richmond from across the United States to voice their opposition to a range of gun control measures proposed by the state’s lawmakers, including banning semi-automatic rifles, making background checks universal, limiting handgun purchases to one per month, and the creation of so called “red flag laws” that would allow the police to confiscate guns from someone considered threatening to themselves or others.”[19]

The Guardian reported, “Tens of thousands of gun rights activists, many of them armed, gathered in Virginia’s capital on Monday as the governor declared a state of emergency ahead of a protest against strict new gun control laws pledged by the state’s freshly elected Democratic majority government. Chanting ‘We will not comply,’ gun rights activists packed the street in front of the Virginia’s state house, where the governor, Ralph Northam, had temporarily banned anyone from carrying firearms. On the streets outside, though, some protesters carried rifles and wore full tactical gear. One protester estimated that as many as 70% of the crowd was armed, most of them more discreetly, with concealed handguns. Police estimated that 22,000 people attended the rally, most of them in the streets outside the state house, where guns were allowed.”

Surging Gun Sales & Stand Your Ground States

Stocks surged during the pandemic. So did gun sales. BradyUnited.org reported, “An effect of COVID-19 has been a surge in gun sales in states across the country. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, background checks processed on March 16, 2020, increased by 300 percent over the same day in 2019. This is a reaction to fear and uncertainty about the future. It is understandable to feel these concerns. At the same time, extensive research shows that adding guns to a situation does not make us or our loved ones safer. Consequently, research shows that more guns in the home are correlated to higher odds of homicide and suicide. It’s been widely proven that adding more guns into a situation increases the lethality of a confrontation. In fact, we have seen that states that implement so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws have higher incidence of homicide.”[20]

Gun Death Rates and Covid-19 Death Rates

New York saw more people die of gun violence than Covid-19 in 2021. Gov. Cuomo said, “”We went from one epidemic to another . . . from COVID to the epidemic of gun violence and the fear, and the death, that goes along with it. It’s so bad when you look at the recent numbers; more people are dying of gun violence than of COVID.”[21]

California argued, “The same unity and determination seen for COVID-19 should be applied to the epidemic of gun violence.”[22]

The American Medical Association connected the medal dots to the gunshots. “Preliminary data suggests that there’s somewhere between a 10 and 20% increase in the number of firearm-related deaths in 2020 compared to 2019. The final numbers aren’t out yet. But we are seeing that there was more firearm homicide and there may have been more firearm suicide as well. And now of course, as the restrictions are lifting, we’re having more mass shootings, again, more of those things that kind of catch the media attention. There are so many shootings that happen every day that never make it on the news, that most of us never hear about. There are more than 300 people who are injured and more than a hundred who are killed every day across the United States, including during the pandemic. This is an underlying epidemic that seems to have worsened, but certainly has not gone away during COVID-19.”[23]

USA Today said COVID-19’s other deadly consequence was gun violence.[24] They connected COVID-19 to gun violence—“The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the economic strain. . . With the number of homicides in Washington, D.C., at its highest level since 2008, gun safety advocates say it’s impossible not to make a connection. The root causes of gun violence are simple: food insecurity, housing insecurity, lack of support systems . . . And coronavirus has exacerbated so many of those, you mix that with easy access to firearms and what you have is a powder keg.”[25]

A national authority on psychiatric care headlined, COVID-19 Pandemic Has Increased Firearm Acquisition, Peoples Worry About Violence.[26] “The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts related to mitigating its spread were associated with increases in worry about violence for oneself and others . . . Moreover, the pandemic has also been linked to an increase in firearm acquisition. While most major news sources reported initial decreases in violent incidents, as measured by local police calls for service, following pandemic-related lockdowns and stay at-home orders, the latest indications are that more serious acts of violence, particularly those involving firearms, have remained the same or increased . . . In addition to a marked increase in shootings in several large cities across the country, the pandemic appears to have fueled a surge in firearm background checks, an established proxy for firearm sales. [There are] individuals’ concerns related to violence in the context of the pandemic, experiences of unfair treatment linked to the pandemic, prevalence of and reasons for acquiring firearms and changes in firearm storage practices because of the pandemic. Results showed significantly higher self-reported worry about violence for oneself during the pandemic for all violence types except mass shootings, ranging from a 2.8% increase for robbery to a 5.6% increase for stray bullet shootings. Further, an estimated 110,000 individuals, or 2.4% of firearm owners in California, acquired a firearm because of the pandemic, including 47,000 new owners. Among owners who stored one or more firearm in the least secure way, 6.7% said they did so in response to the pandemic.”[27]

COVID-19 Aid & America’s Rise in Violent Crime

On June 23, 2021, President Biden laid out his crime-prevention strategy by connecting it to the COVID-19 aid package. “Homicide rates have been soaring, especially in big cities, so President Biden today announced a new plan for dealing with the increase. . . His plan includes more money for police departments and community programs. And it comes as the nation grapples with policing and as Congress continues to try to reach a deal on police reform.”[28]

Predictably, Republicans blamed him for it. The president said, “It has spiked since the start of the pandemic over a year ago. Crime historically rises during the summer. And as we emerge from this pandemic with the country opening back up again, the traditional summer spike may even be more pronounced than it usually would be.”[29]

In July 2021, President Biden argued that federal and local governments must work together to fight U.S. crime. “We recognize that we have to come together to fulfill the first responsibility of a democracy and to keep each other safe. And that’s what the American people are looking for when it comes to reducing violent crime and gun violence.”[30] Republicans countered. “The spike in crime [is] evidence of weak Democratic policies. We are looking to make it a focus of the 2022 elections that will determine control of Congress . . . Biden is supportive of calls to ‘defund’ the police that spread after the murder of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman in May 2020.”[31]

As late as September 2021, criminologists and law enforcement continued to study the sudden sharp increase in 2020. They looked at various answers—societal changes due to the coronavirus—increased gun sales—changes in policing.[32] One possible answer—the large increase in gun purchases—was tabled. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy said, “It is too early to tie the jump in gun sales to new owners to the rise in shooting deaths. He noted police departments in 2020 saw personnel shortages due to covid-19, and new rules at some police agencies designed to curb abusive policing. Having an environment in which there are slightly fewer cops, with more out for Covid and more of them not doing proactive things, that creates a place in which people might want to carry guns around, might be prone to do bad things with those guns.”[33]

To flip a famous coin, guns don’t kill people—politics kill people.

[1] https://time.com/5951001/gun-violence-public-health-crisis/

[2] Rubin R. “Tale of 2 Agencies: CDC Avoids Gun Violence Research But NIH Funds It.” JAMA. 2016;315(16):1689-1691.

[3] https://bulletin.facs.org/2018/07/gun-violence-and-firearm-policy-in-the-u-s-a-brief-history-and-the-current-status/

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/datasources/nvdrs/index.html

[6] https://bulletin.facs.org/2018/07/gun-violence-and-firearm-policy-in-the-u-s-a-brief-history-and-the-current-status/ See also, Rubin R. Tale of 2 agencies: CDC avoids gun violence research but NIH funds it. JAMA. 2016;315(16):1689-1691.

[7] https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2021/09/27/us-killings-soared-nearly-30-in-2020-with-more-of-them-caused-by-guns-fbi-says/

[8] https://everytownresearch.org/report/gun-violence-and-covid-19-in-2020-a-year-of-colliding-crises/

[9] Nicole Goodkind, June 25, 2021 7:51   https://fortune.com/2021/06/25/pandemic-gun-violence-moms-demand-action-shannon-watts/

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/covid-19-containment-measures-linked-increase-firearm-violence

[12] Ibid.

[13] https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/treat-gun-violence-like-covid-19-as-a-public-health-crisis/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Greg Jackson, Opinion Contributor. https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/557210-just-like-covid-19-gun-violence-is-a-public-health-crisis

[16] Ibid.

[17] Pat Eaton-Robb. June 28, 2021 https://apnews.com/article/ct-state-wire-business-health-coronavirus-pandemic-violence-b8a61b2fe81916c1309d314df8a45690

[18] https://medium.com/obsolete-from-march-for-our-lives/understanding-the-forces-fueling-gun-violence-b05ff852bc90

[19] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-020-00673-x

[20] https://www.bradyunited.org/issue/guns-and-coronavirus

[21] https://www.newsweek.com/new-york-governor-cuomo-says-more-people-are-dying-gun-violence-covid-19-1607308

[22] https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/story/2021-04-06/opinion-surge-gun-sales-pandemic

[23] https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/megan-ranney-md-mph-gun-violence-within-pandemic

[24] https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/crime/coronavirus-guns-shootings-youth-suicide-gun-violence/65-154f3265-8b81-4854-81fc-69538adc2b53

[25] Ibid.

[26] https://www.healio.com/news/psychiatry/20210104/covid19-pandemic-has-increased-firearm-acquisition-peoples-worry-about-violence

[27] Ibid.

[28] https://www.npr.org/2021/06/23/1009582150/biden-announced-a-plan-to-reduce-gun-violence-using-covid-19-aid-money

[29] https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-communities-repurpose-covid-relief-money-stop-gun/story?id=78421110

[30] https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-meet-with-local-leaders-rev-up-fight-against-gun-violence-2021-07-12/

[31] Ibid.

[32] As of Wednesday, September 29, 2021. https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2021/09/27/us-killings-soared-nearly-30-in-2020-with-more-of-them-caused-by-guns-fbi-says/

[33] Ibid.

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