Skip to content

Gun Violence and COVID-19

Colliding Public Health Crises

6.16.2020

Summary

The US has seen the collision of two major public health crises: COVID-19 and gun violence. A comprehensive understanding of how this collision will affect Americans and the factors driving the increase in gun violence during the pandemic is still developing, but there are a few takeaways: While millions of Americans rushed out to purchase new firearms in the middle of a global pandemic, thinking they were buying safety, research shows that they are in fact exposing themselves and their families to higher risks of suicide, homicide, unintentional shootings, and intimate partner violence.

Introduction

As of June 4, 2020, there have been over 1.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US. While over 485,000 Americans have recovered from the coronavirus, nearly 108,000 have died.55“COVID-19 Dashboard,” Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, accessed June 4, 2020, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. Since the onset of COVID-19, the country has seen a rise in gun violence: The number of gun deaths trended higher during the peak coronavirus outbreak period of March through the Memorial Day weekend in May than during the comparable time frame in 2019. This resulted in 354 additional firearm deaths.56Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund analysis of Gun Violence Archive data. There were 3,259 gun deaths from March 4, 2019, to May 26, 2019, compared with 3,613 gun deaths from March 2, 2020, to May 24, 2020.

Graph showing firearm deaths and injuries: March to May 2019 & 2020. There have been 354 additional firearm deaths compared to 2019 during March-May 2020.

Unprecedented increases in gun sales, combined with economic distress and social isolation due to COVID-19, are intensifying the country’s long-standing gun violence crisis. The pandemic highlights the deadliness of weak gun purchase and access laws that allow firearms to fall into the wrong hands, and also sheds light on existing structural inequity. The coronavirus puts vulnerable populations, including women, children, and communities of color, at heightened risk. The lethal impact of these crises, though devastating, helps point the way to laws, policies, and programs that can keep people safe and healthy—now and on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. The collision of these two public health crises offers possibility amidst great loss.

Key Findings

  1. The demand for guns surged during the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in an estimated 2.6 million additional gun sales, taxing the background check system.
  2. Increased gun sales during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, coupled with millions of children atypically home from school, increased the risk of child gun suicide and unintentional shootings. Unintentional shooting deaths by children increased by 30 percent in March through May 2020, compared to the March-May average of the past three years.
  3. Unemployment is a risk factor for suicide. Without swift and concerted intervention, the drastic economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 could greatly heighten the risk of firearm suicide. Based on historical precedent, the US risks a 20 to 30 percent increase in firearm suicides, potentially costing the nation an additional 5,000 to 7,000 lives—about 20 more per day—in 2020.
  4. Domestic violence spikes during times of prolonged financial stress.The combination of surging gun sales and shelter-in-place orders has left domestic violence victims trapped with abusive partners, too many of whom have easy access to guns. Access to a gun makes it five times more likely an abuser will kill his female victim.
  5. As the coronavirus has rolled across the country, its virulent impact has not been evenly felt. Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID-19. They are more than four times as likely to die from firearm homicide. City gun violence has persisted even amidst shelter-in-place orders. Systemic and structural discrimination against communities of color is resulting in these communities disproportionately experiencing the deadly effects of both public health crises.
  6. These troubling findings point to the need for swift action on proven policies and programs that can keep families safe in these difficult times: close the Charleston loophole, reassert federal regulation over ghost guns, raise awareness of secure firearm storage practices, enact Extreme Risk laws, keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and increase funding for gun violence intervention programs.

Surging Gun Sales

After the announcement of a national emergency and the release of social distancing guidelines in mid-March, many Americans rushed into gun stores, fueled by the NRA’s fear-mongering messaging that social unrest was inevitable and that the government would not be able to protect them.1Harry Eberts and Miranda Viscoli, “Gun Lobby, NRA Use Crisis to Boost Gun Sales,” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Tsl7hb; NRA, Twitter post, March 21, 2020, “Americans are flocking to gun stores because they know the only reliable self-defense during a crisis is the #2A. Carletta Whiting, who’s disabled & vulnerable to #coronavirus, asks Dems trying to exploit the pandemic: Why do you want to leave people like me defenseless?” https://twitter.com/nra/status/1241418470341980167. According to FBI data, March 2020 set an all-time record for the highest number of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) background checks requested since the creation of the system over 20 years ago.2“NICS Firearm Checks: Month/Year,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed May 21, 2020, https://bit.ly/3eldbXB; “NICS Firearm Checks: Top 10 Highest Days/Weeks,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed April 6, 2020, https://bit.ly/2M0r8xf. From March to May 2020, the FBI received 9.7 million background check requests, compared to 7.3 million requests received in the same period in 2019. This buying spree resulted in an estimated 5.9 million guns sold from March to May 2020, an 80 percent increase over the same time last year.3“NICS Month/Year”; “Estimated Number of Guns Sold by State Between 2019-2020,” Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, June 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/covid-gun-sales.

Graph representing Estimated Firearm Sales, 1998-2020. An estimated 5.9 million guns were sold from March to May 2020, an 80 percent increase over the same time last year. The graph shows spikes gun sales at the time of the Sandy Hook School shooting, December 2015, and COVID-19.

The surge in gun sales put a massive strain on the background check system.

The surge in gun sales put a massive strain on the background check system and increased the risk that people who should be denied a gun may have slipped through the cracks. Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to run a background check on all prospective gun buyers. However, an NRA-backed loophole in the 1993 federal Brady Bill, the “Charleston loophole,”4This loophole enabled the shooter at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to obtain the firearm he used to kill nine churchgoers on June 17, 2015. The shooter, who was prohibited from possessing firearms, was able to purchase the gun because the three-day period had elapsed, and the dealer legally made the sale without a completed background check. In 2019, the US House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation that would address this loophole, but the Senate has thus far refused to put it up for a vote. enables gun sales to proceed by default after three business days—even without a completed background check. Each year, these “default proceeds” put thousands of firearms in the hands of people who are legally prohibited from possessing them.5“NICS Operations Reports, 2014–2018,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed May 21, 2020, https://bit.ly/2VgErOd. In an average year, 4,412 firearms are transferred to people who are prohibited purchasers because of the default proceed rule. While most background checks are completed on the spot, typically 10 percent require additional time, and 3 percent are delayed longer than the mandated three days. In the March-to-May coronavirus gun-buying frenzy, this translated to at least 91,500 potential default proceeds.6Joshua Eaton, “FBI Never Completes Hundreds of Thousands of Gun Checks,” Roll Call, December 3, 2019, https://bit.ly/2W3ZyUs; “NICS Operations Reports, 2014–2018.” According to provided data, there were 43,464,647 federal NICS checks between 2014 and 2018. Approximately 10 percent of all federal checks (4,639,397) were delayed beyond “immediate,” and an estimated 30 percent of these delayed transactions resulted in a default proceed. Between 2014 and 2018, approximately 30 percent of checks delayed more than three business days were resolved before being purged, and in 5 percent of those transactions, firearms had been transferred to prohibited persons. Between 2017 and 2018, 8,824 firearms were transferred to prohibited purchasers, 22 percent of which went to domestic abusers. The US Justice Department’s recent request to Congress for additional personnel to meet this increased demand for background checks, and to help retrieve firearms transferred due to default proceeds, underscores the urgency of closing this deadly loophole.7Betsy Woodruff Swan, “Trump Justice Department Asks for More Resources to Enforce Gun Laws,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://politi.co/2LMerG7. Federal and state elected leaders should take action to extend the time investigators have to complete background checks to ensure that no firearm is sold without one.8Eaton, “FBI Never Completes Gun Checks.” 

Along with a surge in gun sales came an unprecedented increase in orders for kits and parts to make ghost guns,9AndersonManufacturing.com home page, accessed March 18, 2020, https://bit.ly/3eUpucS; [Seller On File] “Home Page: Attention Shipping Delays,” accessed May 6, 2020. homemade guns assembled from readily available, unregulated gun building blocks. Because these guns cannot be traced, they have become a weapon of choice for violent criminals, gun traffickers, dangerous extremists, and other people legally prohibited from buying firearms.10Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Untraceable: The Rising Specter of Ghost Guns,” May 14, 2020, http://everytownresearch.org/untraceable-ghost-guns. The panic-buying of untraceable guns during the pandemic highlights the urgency for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to amend the definition of “firearm frames and receivers” to reassert regulation over ghost guns. In the absence of action by the ATF, Congress should pass the newly introduced Untraceable Firearms Act of 2020,11“The Untraceable Firearms Act of 2020” (Richard Blumenthal, United States Senator for Connecticut), accessed May 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/2TD08rJ. and states should pass laws to regulate the sale of ghost guns and the parts necessary to build them.12Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Untraceable: The Rising Specter of Ghost Guns.”

The Risk of Child Gun Suicide and Unintentional Shootings

4.6M

4.6 million children live in a home with at least one unlocked and loaded firearm.

Azrael, D., Cohen, J., Salhi, C., & Miller, M. (2018). Firearm Storage in Gun-Owning Households with Children: Results of a 2015 National Survey. Journal of urban health : bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 95(3), 295–304. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-018-0261-7

One defining prevention measure of the COVID-19 crisis has been closing America’s schools, bringing children home from school across the country and into direct and sustained contact with the millions of guns in American homes, some of them owned by first-time gun owners.13Erica L. Green, “Administration Offers Guidance to Schools as They Shut Down on Their Own,” New York Times, March 13, 2020, https://nyti.ms/30j3Vil; Jim Curcuruto, “Millions of First-Time Gun Buyers During COVID-19,” (National Shooting Sports Foundation, June 1, 2020), https://bit.ly/3h9CRYT. While responsible gun owners store their firearms unloaded and locked, with ammunition kept in a separate place, having more firearms in homes increases the risk that they will fall into young hands.14Frances Baxley and Matthew Miller, “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 160, no. 5 (2006): 542–47, https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.160.5.542. Researchers estimate that at least 4.6 million children in the United States live in a home with an unsecured firearm,15Deborah Azrael et al., “Firearm Storage in Gun-Owning Households with Children: Results of a 2015 National Survey,” Journal of Urban Health 95, no. 3 (June 2018): 295–304, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-018-0261-7. Study defined children as under the age of 18. and this number has likely increased as gun sales have surged. Nearly 77 percent of unintentional shootings by children (of themselves or others) take place inside the home,16Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Unload, Lock, and Separate: Secure Storage Practices to Reduce Gun Violence,” September 3, 2019, https://everytownresearch.org/secure-storage/. and more than 80 percent of child gun suicides involve a gun belonging to a family member.17Renee M. Johnson et al., “Who Are the Owners of Firearms Used in Adolescent Suicides?” Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior 40, no. 6 (2010): 609–11, https://doi.org/10.1521/suli.2010.40.6.609

With children homebound like never before, the risks of gun violence have been laid bare: Everytown analysis has shown that unintentional shooting deaths by children increased by over 30 percent in March, April, and May 2020, compared to average unintentional gun deaths by children during the same three months over the past three years.18Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “#NotAnAccident Index,” 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/notanaccident.

Unintentional Shooting Deaths and Injuries by Children

In March-May 2020 there was a 30% increase in unintentional shooting deaths by children.

March/May 2017-2019March/May 2020
Unintentional gun injuries (by a child 0-17)5253
Unintentional gun deaths (by a child 0-17)2735
Thus far in 2020, there have been 135 unintentional shootings by children resulting in 49 deaths and 90 injuries. This is likely an undercount due to curtailed ability of journalists to cover news.

Research has shown that securely storing firearms prevents access and saves lives. One study in JAMA Pediatrics estimated that if half of households with children that contain at least one unlocked gun switched to locking all their guns, one-third of youth gun suicides and unintentional deaths could be prevented.19Michael C. Monuteaux, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller, “Association of Increased Safe Household Firearm Storage with Firearm Suicide and Unintentional Death among US Youths,” JAMA Pediatrics 173, no. 7 (2019): 657–62, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1078. Across the country, medical professionalsgun dealerslaw enforcement, community members, and local leaders are working to promote public awareness campaigns—such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America’s Be SMART program—that encourage secure gun storage practices and highlight the public safety risks of unsecured guns and the role of guns in suicide and unintentional shootings. As more adults have brought guns into their homes during the pandemic, the need for secure firearm storage has become critical.

The Risk of Gun Suicide

At the same time that gun purchases are surging, unemployment in the United States is approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression.20Feijun Luo et al., “Impact of Business Cycles on US Suicide Rates, 1928–2007,” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 6 (2011): 1139–46, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2010.300010; “Current Population Survey, Unemployment Rate (LNS14000000),” US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, accessed May 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/35DFXySResearch indicates that both access to a gun and economic stress significantly increase the risk of adult suicide.21Andrew Anglemyer, Tara Horvath, and George Rutherford, “The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Annals of Internal Medicine 160, no. 2 (2014): 101-10, https://doi.org/10.7326/M13-1301; Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Thousands of Preventable Deaths: A Collateral COVID-19 Public Health Crisis,” June 2020, < a href=”https://everytownresearch.org/covid-unemployment-suicide/”>https://everytownresearch.org/covid-unemployment-suicide/. Based on historical precedent, Everytown projects that the US could see an estimated 20 to 30 percent increase in firearm suicides, resulting in an additional 5,000 to 7,000 gun suicide deaths in 2020 alone, solely as a result of the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.22This Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund estimate calculates the rate of firearm suicide for working-age Americans 15 to 64 years of age (8.3 per 100,000 people) multiplied by the estimated additional number of unemployed (24 million) based on initial unemployment insurance claims from March through April 25, 2020, compared to 2018 unemployment, multiplied by the relative risk of suicide within five years of unemployment compared to those who are employed (relative risk of 2.5). Firearm suicide rate source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER), Underlying Cause of Death, 2018. Additional unemployed population source: “Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims Data,” US Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, April 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/3fkKeMb. Relative risk of suicide source is derived from: Allison Milner, Andrew Page, and Anthony D. LaMontagne, “Long-Term Unemployment and Suicide: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 1 (2013), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051333. Per day calculations are based on nine months from April 2020. These calculations include only the economic consequences of COVID-19 and do not take into account any increased firearm suicide risks from social isolation. These projections do not take into account the impact on gun suicide of social isolation and increased access to guns, but they do illustrate the strong link between unemployment, job insecurity, financial loss, and suicide around the world, especially for men of working age.23Camilla Haw et al., “Economic Recession and Suicidal Behaviour: Possible Mechanisms and Ameliorating Factors,” International Journal of Social Psychiatry 61, no. 1 (2015): 73–81, https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764014536545.

Graph representing the actual and projected firearm suicide deaths per year, 2010-2020. Based on historical precedent, the US could see a 20 to 30 percent increase in firearm suicides.

COVID-19 has created a perfect storm in which known suicide risk factors are colliding. This highlights the need to invest in interventions that can reduce the risk of gun suicide. The hopeful news is that there are proven policies with respect to gun access that can save lives, and important mental health actions and economic supports that experts agree could prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from exacerbating a subsequent firearm suicide epidemic.

States and court systems have adapted to ensure that Extreme Risk interventions continue even with social distancing restrictions in place.

One important tool that empowers loved ones and/or law enforcement to intervene in order to temporarily prevent someone in crisis from accessing firearms is Extreme Risk laws. These laws, enacted in 19 states and DC,24CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, HI, IL, IN, MD, MA, NV, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, VA, and WA. have continued to be life-saving tools during COVID-19. States and court systems have adapted to ensure that Extreme Risk interventions continue even with social distancing restrictions in place. Chief Justices in Oregon, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and other states have issued statewide orders permitting Extreme Risk protection order filings and proceedings via remote means where possible.25Oregon Chief Justice Order No. 20-006 (Amended, March 27, 2020, https://bit.ly/3cK5Qir; Rhode Island Supreme Court Executive Order, No. 2020-09, April 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/37cWM4l; Massachusetts District Court Standing Order 2-20, March 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/30nGlAL. Throughout the pandemic, some localities have seen the number of Extreme Risk interventions remain steady or increase.26Debbie L. Sklar, “Nearly 50 Gun Violence Restraining Orders Served in San Diego since March 1,” Times of San Diego, April 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/3h5YFob.

In addition to Extreme Risk interventions, increased access to mental health and medical services also helps prevent suicide deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends providing medical benefits, ensuring coverage of mental health and substance use treatment in health insurance policies, and increasing the number of health providers in underserved areas.27Deb Stone et al., Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practice (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2017), https://doi.org/10.15620/cdc.44275. Economic support programs and policies can also mitigate suicide risk factors by reducing the strain on families of paying for food, medical care, housing, and other basic expenses.28Stone et al., Preventing Suicide.

The Risk of Domestic Violence

The impact on domestic abuse victims of prevention measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 has been immediate and grave. Victims and their children are now trapped at home with abusive partners, under the worst circumstances. And the financial stressors of our dramatic economic downturn and the social isolation of lockdown orders have in some cases worsened this abuse. This problem can become more deadly with ready access to guns.29“Economic Distress and Intimate Partner Violence,” National Institute of Justice, January 4, 2009, https://bit.ly/2MJIazW. Since the start of the pandemic, countries around the world have reported increases in domestic violence.30Edith M. Lederer, “UN Chief Urges End to Domestic Violence, Citing Global Surge,” NBC 4 New York, April 5, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Tsd6Zh. In the United States, as of June 1, 2020, 195 cities and counties across 48 states have reported an uptick in calls, texts, and chats to local domestic violence hotlines and police departments.31“Increases in Domestic Violence Calls to Hotlines or Police,” Guns Down America, accessed June 1, 2020, https://bit.ly/2TFT6CK. And domestic violence organizations have had to reduce their intake to avoid overcrowding in shelters.32Alisha Haridasani Gupta and Aviva Stahl, “For Abused Women, a Pandemic Lockdown Holds Dangers of Its Own,” New York Times, March 24, 2020, https://nyti.ms/2Xq7tMs; Adiel Kaplan and Wilson Wong, “It’s Hard to Flee from Your Domestic Abuser during a Coronavirus Lockdown,” NBC News, May 17, 2020, https://nbcnews.to/36pjaqX Further, experts are concerned that many victims are unable to seek help due to being quarantined with abusers, and so a further spike in requests for help is expected as states start to ease their stay-at-home orders.33Kaplan and Wong, “It’s Hard to Flee.”

United States map showing the percentage increase in rates of calls to local hotlines and police departments during the pandemic. Seattle: 21%, Portland: 27%, San Francisco: 20%, Salt Lake City: 32%, Minot: 24%, Austin: 17%, St. Louis: 19%, Milwaukee: 28%, Metro Detroit: 25%, Nashville: 55%, Florida: 30%, Virginia: 76%, Boston: 22%

5x

Access to a gun makes it five times more likely that a woman will die at the hands of a domestic abuser.

Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J., Block, C., Campbell, D., Curry, M. A., Gary, F., Glass, N., McFarlane, J., Sachs, C., Sharps, P., Ulrich, Y., Wilt, S. A., Manganello, J., Xu, X., Schollenberger, J., Frye, V., & Laughon, K. (2003). Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: results from a multisite case control study. American journal of public health, 93(7), 1089–1097. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.93.7.1089

Research shows that access to a gun makes it five times more likely that a woman will die at the hands of a domestic abuser.34Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al., “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results From a Multisite Case Control Study,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 7 (July 2003): 1089–97, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.93.7.1089. The COVID-19 crisis has intensified the factors that contribute to our current gun-related domestic violence crisis. As gun sales have surged, personal finances have become strained, shelter-in-places orders have trapped victims and children with abusers, and nationwide social distancing measures have ravaged sectors (such as retail and hospitality) where female workers comprise a significant portion of the workforce, women have become especially vulnerable.35Niv Elis, “Women Suffering Steeper Job Losses in COVID-19 Economy,” The Hill, May 25, 2020, https://bit.ly/3cE24Hm.

Domestic violence and the compounding effects of the pandemic highlight the importance of strengthening and enforcing laws to keep guns out of the hands of abusers, and providing support to domestic violence shelters, hotlines, and courts in order to keep victims and their families safe. Research shows that states that prohibit domestic abusers, including dating partners, from possessing guns have seen a 13 percent reduction in intimate partner firearm homicide rates, and those that also require abusers to relinquish guns they already own have experienced a 14 to 16 percent lower intimate partner firearm homicide rate.36April M. Zeoli et al., “Analysis of the Strength of Legal Firearms Restrictions for Perpetrators of Domestic Violence and Their Associations with Intimate Partner Homicide,” American Journal of Epidemiology 187, no. 11 (November 1, 2018): 2365–71, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwy174; Carolina Díez et al., “State Intimate Partner Violence-Related Firearm Laws and Intimate Partner Homicide Rates in the United States, 1991 to 2015,” Annals of Internal Medicine 167, no. 8 (October 17, 2017): 536, https://doi.org/10.7326/M16-2849.

Persistent City Gun Violence

The implementation of stay-at-home orders provided some hope that city-based community gun violence would subside. But while overall crime has largely decreased across American cities during the peak months of the pandemic, city gun violence has persisted. In Chicago and Los Angeles, for example, violent crime has decreased overall but shootings and/or shots fired have increased.37Analysis of Chicago Police Department CompStat reports for the period of March 30 to April 26, 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, showed a 9 percent increase in shooting incidents and a 27 percent decrease in Part I crimes. Analysis of Los Angeles Police Department CompStat reports for the period of March 29 to April 25, 2020, compared to April 21 to May 18, 2019, showed a 7 percent increase in shots fired and a 12 percent decrease in violent crime.  Additionally, in Cincinnati,38Byron McCauley, “Cincinnati Shootings: ‘A Double Whammy,’” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 22, 2020, https://bit.ly/2XgCN0kLouisville,39Natalia Martinez, “Shootings in Louisville up by More than 150 Percent during Coronavirus Outbreak,” Wave 3 News, April 16, 2020, https://bit.ly/2TtAOEK. and Philadelphia,40Mike Newall, Chris Palmer, and Dylan Purcell, “Even a Pandemic Can’t Slow Philly’s Gun Violence,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 2020, https://bit.ly/2yAfK8l. media reports have indicated that shootings and/or the number of shooting victims have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the factors driving city gun violence before the COVID-19 crisis have only been aggravated during the pandemic.

Gun Violence Trends in Select US Cities

Many police departments lag in reporting shootings data and still others do not publicly report this data. While trends are highly uneven, it’s very clear that city gun violence is persisting.

  • In Chicago and LA, violent crime overall has decreased but shootings and/or shots fired have increased. (CompStat, 28 days in April)
  • In Atlanta, Baltimore, Nashville, New Haven, and NYC both violent crime overall and shootings or shots fired have decreased. (CompStat, 28 days in April)
  • In Cincinnati, Louisville, and Philadelphia, there are indications that shootings and/or shooting victims have increased (media reporting), but law enforcement statistics are currently unavailable.

Communities of color have long experienced the disproportionate impact of gun violence in cities, largely driven by centuries of systemic and structural racial discrimination, including policies such as redlining, as well as inequities in health care, education, and exposure to environmental hazards. These factors have put Black and brown communities at a considerable disadvantage compared to their white counterparts.41“The Root Causes of Health Inequity,” in Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity, ed. James N. Weinstein et al., (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2017), https://bit.ly/30lEEUDAnd they are some of the very same factors that have made these communities vulnerable to the devastating and deadly effects of COVID-19.42Fatimah Loren Muhammad, “The Pandemic’s Impact on Racial Inequity and Violence Can’t Be Ignored,” The Trace, May 7, 2020, https://bit.ly/2TuMkQ7. This, in part, explains why Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID-19 and more than four times as likely to die from firearm homicide.43Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, “Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics,” tables 2a and 2b, accessed May, 27, 2020, https://bit.ly/2X7KWoQ. As of May 20, 2020, Black Americans make up 12.5 percent of the US population but account for 22.7 percent of COVID-19 deaths; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research Tool (WONDER), Underlying Cause of Death, 2014-2018. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population but account for 57.5 percent of the firearm homicide deaths.

Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 Deaths & Gun Homicide on Black Communities

Nearly 2x as many COVID-19 deaths. Black Americans make up 13% of the US population but account for 23% of COVID-19 deaths.

More than 4x as many firearm homicide deaths in a year. Black Americans make up 14% of the US population but account for 58% of firearm homicide deaths.

Why? Both the pandemic and gun homicide reflect and intensify this country’s long-standing racial inequities in health care, housing, education, exposure to environmental hazards, and more.

Layoffs and closures resulting from COVID-19 have further contributed to the disproportionate impact of city gun violence on Black communities. Thousands of businesses have been forced to temporarily shutter in order to contain the spread of the virus,44Chris Arnold, “America Closed: Thousands of Stores, Resorts, Theaters Shut Down,” NPR, March 16, 2020, https://n.pr/2Ttp4C7. with layoffs that disproportionately affect Black communities.45Lauren Aratani and Dominic Rushe, “African Americans Bear the Brunt of COVID-19’s Economic Impact,” The Guardian, April 28, 2020, https://bit.ly/2XyAPZi. This kind of economic distress has a significant bearing on gun violence. In fact, research shows that counties with high unemployment or high rates of poverty have higher rates of gun homicide.46Daniel Kim, “Social Determinants of Health in Relation to Firearm-Related Homicides in the United States: A Nationwide Multilevel Cross-Sectional Study,” PLoS Medicine 16, no. 12 (2019), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002978.

Funding gun violence intervention programs is one way to mitigate the effects of city gun violence. Community-based violence intervention programs work with local individuals at the highest risk of shooting or being shot and help to reduce violence through targeted interventions in their communities and in hospitals. Despite the evidence of their effectiveness,47Andrew V. Papachristos and David S. Kirk, “Changing the Street Dynamic: Evaluating Chicago’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy,” Criminology & Public Policy 14, no. 3 (2015): 525–58, https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12139; Caterina G. Roman et al., “Philadelphia CeaseFire: Findings from the Impact Evaluation,” Key Findings Research Summary (Temple University, January 2017). these programs are too often underfunded.48Lois Beckett, “How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives,” ProPublica, November 24, 2015, https://bit.ly/2v1Ftou. Street outreach organizations, in particular, have long been at the front lines of gun violence prevention work in our cities and are now battling two epidemics at once, as they also face the challenges of being frontline public health workers.49David Muhammad and Devone Boggan, “The Very Essential Work of Street-Level Violence Prevention,” The Trace, April 14, 2020, https://bit.ly/2AdmIAM. As cities and states grapple with the financial impact of COVID-19, it’s imperative for them to sustain funding for these critical gun violence prevention programs.

Of course, community gun violence intervention programs cannot on their own mitigate the structural inequity that fuels gun violence. This pandemic emphasizes that we must invest in communities to provide access to the resources they need to be strong and healthy. Long-term interventions include investments in community-driven crime prevention by environmental design,50Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” April 2019, https://everytown.org/documents/2019/04/crime-prevention-through-environmental-design.pdf/ youth employment programs,51Alicia Sasser Modestino, “How Do Summer Youth Employment Programs Improve Criminal Justice Outcomes, and for Whom?,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 38, no. 3 (2019): 600–628, https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.22138. counseling and mentorship services for youth,52“BAM-Sports Edition,” Research and Policy Brief, (University of Chicago Crime Lab, July 2012), https://bit.ly/2ASh4UC. and cognitive behavioral therapy.53Sara B. Heller et al., “Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago,” Working Paper Series (National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2015), https://doi.org/10.3386/w21178.

The Path Forward

Over the past few months, the US has seen the collision of two major public health crises: COVID-19 and gun violence. A comprehensive understanding of how this collision will affect Americans and the factors driving the increase in gun violence during the pandemic is still developing, but there are a few takeaways to be gleaned: While millions of Americans rushed out to purchase new firearms in the middle of a global pandemic, thinking they were buying safety, research shows that they are in fact exposing themselves and their families to higher risks of suicide, homicide, unintentional shootings, and intimate partner violence.54Andrew Anglemyer, Tara Horvath, and George Rutherford, “The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization among Household Members: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Annals of Internal Medicine 160, no. 2 (2014): 101–10, https://doi.org/10.7326/M13-1301; Campbell et al., “Risk Factors for Femicide”; Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “#NotAnAccident Index.” At the same time, the structural, economic, and social inequities fueling community gun violence have been exacerbated. The pandemic has become a sobering wake-up call to this country, alerting us to existing issues that put all Americans, especially those in vulnerable communities, in harm’s way.

The increase in gun deaths during this pandemic has shined a light on our nation’s shortcomings, while also illuminating the path forward. Our work must include implementing proven policies that protect ourselves and others, including strengthening our background check system, promoting secure gun storage, funding community-based violence intervention and suicide prevention programs, passing Extreme Risk laws, and instituting policies that separate domestic abusers from their guns. We must also invest in the essential work of rectifying the ills of economic, social, and structural inequity—while ensuring access to fundamental services such as healthcare and domestic violence and mental health services—to protect our most vulnerable communities. The benefits of instituting evidence-informed policies are manifold: In doing so, we invest in the cost-effective strategy of prevention, improve the plight of all Americans across the country, and ultimately save lives.

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.

The Latest