While the long term effects of COVID-19 still aren’t fully clear, it is evident that cities are experiencing historic levels of violence this year. Some cities, like Memphis, Cincinnati, Trenton and Greensboro, are approaching or have set new homicide records in 2020. Other locations, like Fort Worth, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, are reaching city gun violence levels not seen in a decade or longer.
In St. Louis, where city leaders have for years asked state lawmakers to strengthen Missouri’s weak gun laws, homicides are on pace to be the highest the city has seen in 25 years. And like in many cities, the toll on kids has been heavy: By September, the city’s two largest children’s hospitals had already treated more young people for gunshot wounds than they had in any other calendar year on record.
A Police Executive Research Forum survey of 129 diverse police agencies shows that the surge in gun homicides is not isolated to municipalities in a specific region, but rather is an upward trend that is being felt in communities across the nation. In fact, 57 percent of agencies surveyed experienced an increase in firearm homicides and nearly 70 percent experienced an increase in nonfatal shootings in 2020, relative to 2019.
Explaining the Increase in City Gun Violence
There are no easy explanations for this year’s sudden jump in gun violence in our cities, and experts will need time to understand all of the social, economic, and cultural impacts of COVID on American life, health, and safety. One thing is clear though: Lack of access to income, suitable housing, and other critical life needs are key drivers of gun violence, and decades of policy decisions and underinvestment in Black and Latino communities have created areas of concentrated disadvantage, where public health crises — including both COVID and gun violence — thrive. Add to this the elimination and alteration of key social services and easy access to firearms, and we begin to see a number of compounding factors to explain the upward trend.
Disruption of Critical Services and Infrastructure
Important social services that are not always thought of as gun violence prevention-focused have been meaningfully interrupted because of the pandemic. In particular, young people — who are often at greatest risk of gun violence — have had their lives upended, leaving them without safe spaces or supports. Schools have been closed, afterschool and summer programs have been cut, youth employment programs have been suspended, in-person support programs have been hampered by COVID or underfunded, and workforce development programs have been paused. As these critical supports have been shuttered, the void has been filled with gun violence.
Unique challenges for violence intervention programs
Many local gun violence intervention programs — which have seen success in preventing daily gun violence in cities — have experienced unprecedented challenges in their work, including strained funding, the loss of support services that at-risk individuals rely on after intervention, social distancing measures which altered outreach engagement, and an expansion of their mission to include preventing the spread of the virus.
Extended Summer Violence Spike
Crime trends show that cities have often experienced increases in violent crime during the summer. With stay-at-home orders in effect and schools shuttered, many of the conditions that lead to violence during the summer — combined with a reduction of community-based services and support — happened earlier and have persisted.
Policing & Community Trust
Cities grappling with disproportionate gun violence have long struggled with deteriorating trust between law enforcement and communities, negatively impacting police legitimacy and discouraging civilians from calling on them to respond to persistent gun violence. As the murder of George Floyd further sparked national outrage over police brutality, the relationship between law enforcement and community has only been further strained. Police violence has the corrosive impact of dramatically reducing public confidence in police, likely hindering police-community collaboration, and increasing willingness among some civilians to pick up guns to make them feel safe and protected.
Spike in Gun Sales and Widening of Loopholes
This year, Americans bought guns in record numbers, many citing personal protection and fear of social collapse as the reason. Gun sales at licensed dealers resulted in an estimated 17.4 million guns sold between March and November, an 81 percent increase over the same period last year. Moreover, the spike in gun sales has exacerbated long-standing, NRA-backed loopholes in our gun laws:
- By the end of 2020, it is estimated that nearly 600,000 checks will have taken longer than three business days. Because of the Charleston loophole, all sales that are delayed past this deadline may proceed, meaning at least 7,500 illegal purchasers could have acquired guns in this fashion—more than during the last two years combined.
- The number of posts by people looking to buy guns on Armslist—the self-proclaimed “largest free gun classifieds on the web”—has increased dramatically during the pandemic, nearly doubling in 2020 compared to 2019 and signaling a large spike in no-background-check sales.
- Demand has skyrocketed in 2020 for ghost guns, unregulated do-it-yourself firearms that are not subject to background checks, do not have serial numbers, and cannot be traced when they are recovered at crime scenes.
While the impact of gun sales and these loopholes on city gun violence spikes is still unclear, the ready availability of firearms to people who are prohibited from acquiring them only increases the risks that guns will be used in violent crime.
Addressing the Crisis
The federal government has failed to provide the necessary support and leadership to assist cities with growing gun violence over the past year. The current administration has used the crisis as a means to stir political and racial hostilities. Meanwhile, the Senate has failed to provide meaningful, continued COVID relief that could help individuals and communities avoid some of the circumstances that lead to gun violence. There are major, preventable interruptions to the delivery of social services that support individuals at the highest risk for violence — and the federal government has left states, and specifically cities, to deal with the consequences. Only by working in collaboration can lawmakers at all levels of government begin to slow the alarming rates of gun violence cities have experience in 2020.
Congress must quickly pass a robust COVID relief package that provides much-needed dollars for cities who have seen revenue fall sharply as a result of the pandemic this year. Congress must also act on critical legislation like background checks on all gun sales, and authorizing consistent and reliable funding for evidence-based violence intervention programs.
There are also immediate steps that the incoming Biden administration can take to support evidence-based gun violence intervention programs. In many cases, the actions can be taken without waiting for Congress, like prioritizing existing grant programs to support the services that work to stop gun violence but have been underfunded before and during the pandemic, and addressing the ways in which illegal guns are getting into our communities.
At the state level, lawmakers should continue pushing for stronger laws that are proven to reduce violence. States can also unlock budget funding to local intervention efforts during the state legislative budget process, like California and Connecticut did in 2019. State agencies can also direct federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds to victim services specifically targeted to survivors of gun violence. Dedicated VOCA funding would help community-based organizations, who have been serving victims of gun violence for decades with few resources, to help survivors heal and interrupt the cycle of violence.
Local officials have been on the front lines responding to the dual public health crises of COVID-19 and gun violence. To plan for and map out appropriate local responses, city leaders should be in close coordination with community stakeholders, like law enforcement, community organizations, clergy and other credible neighborhood messengers. They should also continue to support the local gun violence interventions programs and their workers who are trained to identify, mediate and prevent shootings among high risk individuals. Finally, city leaders must use their unique position to advocate for state and federal funding to ensure that critical gun violence prevention programs and other necessary social services are adequately funded during these difficult fiscal times.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.