Pandemic Kindled Surge in Firearms Purchases: California Study

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Fears of pandemic-related violence spurred a surge in firearms purchases, according to a California study.

The study by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program estimated that 110,000 Californians bought at least one gun during the pandemic, including 47,000 who purchased firearms for the first time.

“We believe this is the first study using a representative sample of state residents to assess the near-term effects of the pandemic on individual perceptions, motivations and behaviors related to violence and firearm ownership,” said Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, an assistant professor at UC Davis and the lead author of the study.

The UC Davis researchers did not link the increase in gun purchases to an upsurge in firearm-related violence in the state, but national studies have shown that despite an initial decrease in violent crime during national lockdowns and stay-at-tome orders, “more serious” acts of violence—especially involving firearms—have either remained the same or increased, and there has been a noteworthy rise in shootings and homicides in several big cities.

A paper published in July by the UC Davis program estimated there were 2.1 million “excess purchases” of firearms between March and May, and associated this “with a significant increase in firearm violence.”

“We estimate an increase of 776 fatal and nonfatal injuries over the number expected for those months had there been no increase in purchases,” the paper said.

Adding a more troubling note, the newer study noted that many of the Californians who bought guns during the pandemic reported they were likely to keep them loaded and in unsecured places in or near the home—which other research has shown is linked to more instances of firearm deaths, including suicide by gun.

“An estimated 55,000 people (1.2 percent of gun owners in the state) who currently store at least one firearm loaded and not locked up reported adopting this unsecure storage practice in response to the pandemic,“ the researchers found.

The authors acknowledged that their findings were not necessarily “generalizable” across the country, since California had a relatively low level of firearm ownership compared to other states.

Their conclusions were based on a survey of 2,870 adults who responded to a questionnaire sent in July to a representative sample of over 5,000 individuals aged 18 and over, calculated to reflect all segments of California’s population.

The authors said the survey answers also suggested that a critical motive for the increase in gun-buying was a widespread fear of becoming victims of violence during the pandemic, although more than one in 10 reported they were concerned that someone they knew might intentionally harm another person or themselves with a firearm.

The survey noted that gun purchases traditionally climb in response to traumatic events such as mass shootings, but researchers argued that the pandemic had effectively merged two public health problems in the U.S.: violence and infectious disease.

“Violence is a significant public health problem that has become entwined with the coronavirus pandemic,” the study said. “Conditions that contribute to violence—poverty, unemployment, lack of available resources, isolation, hopelessness, and loss—have intensified and are further compounded by the recent surge in firearm sales.”

Respondents to the survey identified many of these factors when asked why they feared more violence would result from the pandemic.

Respondents who admitted they were worried that close friends or relatives would turn their guns on themselves said their fears were based on the fact that those individuals had “suffered a loss”—as a result of losing a job, housing, or the death of a loved one—during the pandemic.

The complete study and tables can be downloaded here.

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