Is Gun Violence Spike Tied to Rise in Firearm Purchases During Pandemic?

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Shoes of gun violence victims are displayed in a San Francisco vigil . Photo by Global Exchange via Flckr.

As the country began grappling with the coronavirus outbreak in early spring, many Americans sought to protect themselves and their families by purchasing firearms.

Between March and May of 2020, national background check data recorded 2.1 million firearm purchases, which is a 64 percent increase over the previous period, according to a new study by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Program (VPRP).

The authors of the study argue that the spike in firearm purchases is directly related to the subsequent increase in gun violence during the pandemic.

While the authors cautioned that their report had not yet been peer reviewed, they said their preliminary findings showed how fears generated by the nation’s health crisis translated into firearm injuries and deaths.

They based their findings on monthly data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (known as NICS) on firearm purchases and reported firearm violence cases from January 2018 through May 2020.

They then highlighted the time frame between March and May of 2020, when roughly every state was feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic through unprecedented stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions.

“In a state-level analysis, we find that the size of the increase in purchasing (which varied among the states) is tied to the size of the increase in violence,” the researchers concluded.

In other words, the more excess firearm purchases a state saw, the more gun violence that quickly followed.

Firearm Purchasing

To put the increase in firearms purchases into a different perspective, Julia P. Schleimer, VPRP research analyst and primary author of the study, wrote that since the COVID-19 outbreak, there are now 644 more firearms per 100,000 people than before.

The states that saw the most excess firearm purchases from March to May of this year were New Hampshire, Mississippi, Kentucky, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Arizona.

Conversely, other states — specifically Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Mexico and Washington — actually closed their firearm stores at some point during the pandemic lockdown.

Those states are the ones that saw the smallest increase in legal firearm purchases.

“Surges in firearm purchasing are associated with mass shootings and significant political events,” Schleimer continued, specifically citing the seemingly controversial stay-at-home orders that many states endured.

This surge in purchasing following a significant political event is a trend our country has seen before.

Researchers cited that there was a spike in California’s gun purchases following both the 2012 presidential election and Sandy Hook shooting.

Firearm Violence

Moreover, this number of new firearms in households has increased the amount of firearm violence by almost 8 percent, and it’s having a devastating effect on communities, the study found.

The researchers say the uptick in violence translates to an increase of “over one injury or death for every 100 excess firearms purchased per 100,000 population.”

These violent spikes are beginning to make it into our headlines, as just this past weekend there were multiple shootings in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago — all with dozens of injuries and a handful of deaths.

Other exacerbating factors that could have contributed to the increase in the actual firearm violence include “financial stress, tension, trauma, grief, worry, disruptions to daily routines, and a sense of hopelessness” as well as general “fear and scapegoating associated with COVID-19.”

Considering the psychological stressors and triggers, the VPRP researchers suggest that the culture around firearms and their accessibility must be addressed by lawmakers and law enforcement authorities.

“Given the impulsive nature of most firearm violence, and the multiple strains associated with the pandemic, short-term crisis interventions, such as extreme risk protection orders and those involving violence intervention specialists, may be particularly useful during the pandemic,” the researchers recommend.

Other recommendations based on this research include the following:

      • Screening for firearm ownership in healthcare settings;
      • Support and enforce safer firearm use and storage;
      • Address contributing risk factors for violence;
      • Address fears created by misinformation in the media; and,
      • Address misperceptions about health risks and benefits of firearm ownership.

“Firearm violence is a significant public health and safety problem in the United States,” the researchers conclude. “A surge in firearm purchases following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic may [continue to] increase rates of firearm violence.”

The full study can be accessed here. 

See Also:  Domestic Violence Eyed as Factor in This Year’s Murder Toll

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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