Gun violence sky-rocketed by more than 30% across the United States during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost 39,000 injuries and deaths nationwide involved a gun in the year starting in February 2019 — and that number shot up to more than 51,000 between March 2020 and March 2021, according to nationwide figures compiled by the non-profit group, Gun Violence Archive (GVA).
“We were not surprised that the gun violence rates were higher during the pandemic,” said study leader Dr. Paddy Ssentongo. He is an assistant professor with the Center for Neural Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. “But we were surprised by the large magnitude of the increase.”
And some states saw far steeper inclines than others.
While the rate of gun violence significantly increased in 28 states, it shot up by 100% in Minnesota, Michigan and New York.
“Although our study was not framed to explore the specific factors that caused the increased rate of gun violence, this pandemic has been associated with psychological distress caused by the shelter-in-place orders, increased rates of domestic violence, disruption of social networks, unemployment, and record increases in gun sales and access to guns during the pandemic,” Ssentongo said.
He added that all of these factors are plausible explanations for the surge.
GVA compiled statistics for all 50 states and the District of Columbia from law enforcement filings, government records, media reports and commercially available sources. Once collected, the data were vetted by independent researchers.
The researchers found that almost 93,000 injuries and deaths (including suicides) resulted from gun-related violence between Jan. 1, 2019 and March 31, 2021.
But when broken down into pre-pandemic and pandemic periods, the team noted a consistent trend. Every two-month period between March 2020 and March 2021 saw increased gun violence when compared to similar two-month periods in the prior year.
Alaska was the exception, registering fewer incidents of gun violence during the pandemic than in the year before.
Yet a clear majority of states saw what Ssentongo’s team characterized as a “significantly” higher risk for gun-related violence.
They included Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia.
But will gun violence rates drop again once the pandemic is fully in the rear-view mirror?
Ssentongo doubts it. While the pandemic may have driven up risk, the larger issue is longstanding and he suspects it is likely to persist without a major public health intervention.
“The pandemic simply worsened an already existing public health crisis,” he said, adding: “The spike in gun violence in the era of COVID-19 pandemic comes as a stark reminder that we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. The time is now to focus on this as a public health issue.”
That thought was seconded by Bindu Kalesan, an assistant professor of medicine and community health science at Boston University.
Her take: It’s essential to consider gun violence as a longstanding concern with deep roots in poverty, even if the pandemic made poverty far more widespread. In that light, Kalesan said, prevention is the only remedy.
“We try to ‘fix’ gun violence with laws alone,” she noted. “[But] gun violence is a social disease as well, and largely homicides occur in poor communities.”
That, Kalesan said, means any public health attempt to rein in gun violence must first tackle poverty. “The approach of fixing [gun violence] when there is a spike is akin to our general thinking about health: when I get sick we can take some meds and be well,” she said.
That approach fails because it doesn’t address the key underlying causes of that violence in the first place, such as the depression, anxiety and high crime rate that poverty gives rise to, Kalesan said. “This is the larger point.”
The findings were published online Oct. 21 in the journal Scientific Reports.
Learn more about rates of gun violence at the Gun Violence Archive.
SOURCES: Paddy Ssentongo, MD, MPH, PhD, assistant professor, Center for Neural Engineering, department of engineering science and mechanics, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Penn.; Bindu Kalesan, PhD, MPH, director, Center for Translational Epidemiology and Comparative Effectiveness Research, and assistant professor, medicine and community health science, Boston University School of Medicine; Scientific Reports, Oct. 21, 2021, online