Not many months ago, the United States was experiencing another public health crisis: gun violence. In 2019 alone, more than 15,000 Americans were fatally shot by others, a 3 percent increase in gun deaths from 2018, while another 100,000 are injured by guns every year.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, social scientists can’t help but wonder how this crisis will affect the ongoing gun violence epidemic.
For one, there are now more guns in the hands of Americans today than at any point in history. Amid the fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans bought a record number of firearms — more than 2.5 million in March alone. That’s an 85.3 percent increase from March 2019. The month of April saw another drastic increase in COVID-19-related firearm sales, 71 percent relative to 2019.
People are also lonely, stressed and in fear. At the same time that Americans are buying guns at record rates, 1 in 4 Americans are also concerned about their mental health. These trend lines are pointing to a bad place.
However, it’s still unclear how the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders and other measures implemented to prevent spread of the disease are affecting gun violence in the United States.
Miami reported no homicides for 7 straight weeks during the pandemic, the first time this occurred since 1957, and Baltimore has also seen decreases in violent crime and shootings.
It’s not all good news, though. Other large cities like Philadelphia and Chicago have seen increases in gun violence across late March and April.
On its face, we would expect social-distancing measures to reduce access to public spaces such as schools, movie theaters, churches, and even the city streets where gun violence typically occurs. Some available data support this theory, as mass shootings were down nationwide in April compared to the past 3 years, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
We don’t know enough, however, about what is happening inside people’s homes. Domestic violence-related mass shootings did not see a decrease, based on our analysis of these data. Local news reports indicate that domestic violence calls may be increasing during the pandemic, without any nationwide data available to track domestic violence-related shootings of all kinds.
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We have a rare opportunity to study key risk factors for gun violence, but we know far less than we should. As easy access to firearms, mental health issues and conflict with domestic partners are three of the leading theories used to explain gun violence rates in America, now is the time to study their effects on national shooting trends.
Unfortunately, national data of this kind are currently unavailable, as far as we can tell. Until recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t fund research on gun violence prevention.
The earlier we obtain answers, the earlier we can implement evidence-based interventions to save lives. The unprecedented number of guns bought in the last two months will still be there when social-distancing guidelines are lifted.
Edelyn Verona is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, studying psychological risk for violence and crime. Bryanna Fox is a former FBI special agent and associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida researching prevention strategies for crime and violence.