This month, with the terrible killings in Atlanta and Colorado, gun violence returned to the evening news. With in-person congregation mostly eliminated due to the pandemic, it seemed as if there were no shootings in 2020—in schools and public buildings and houses of worship—like those that have filled our television screens for decades. Yet in 2020, with much of the population staying at home, the number of mass shootings (at least four victims wounded) exceeded the year-end totals of the previous five years. With 20,000 dead from guns, Covid-19 did not slow the gun violence trend of the past decade. In frequency, fatalities, and injuries, gun violence during this past year has been hideous.
Indeed, 2020 was the highest gun sales year ever. There were two million guns sold in March 2020 alone, the second busiest month in history, the same month that Covid-19 rates first rose. First-time buyers drove this burst. Americans feared crime waves, police depletion, government repression, and sales persisted throughout the year. Americans stockpiled military weapons and high-volume gun clips. The background check system foundered under record-breaking business. The recorded numbers included only known gun sales; sales of unregistered guns, those bought at gun fairs, and online “ghost guns” assembled by the purchaser, are not tracked.
But shootings continue, related to criminal activity, family disputes, gang wars. 2020 was another year where more gun sales did not buy more safety.
There are other kinds of shooting. Suicide by gun has been on the rise for years, and Covid-19 with its bleak joblessness and economic disruption, its enforced isolation, has brought new pressures to a nation already armed and despairing. Continuing historical trends, communities of color bear a disproportionate brunt of gun violence, just as they have borne the highest rates of Covid-19. Stay-at-home orders certainly curtailed outreach activities for mental health workers and social programs that might have ameliorated the crescendoing violence.
This upward march of gun violence was a continuation from 2019; that is, it preceded effects of the pandemic and the summer unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. This reminds us that neither racial issues nor a novel infectious disease necessarily worsened the American situation, the entwinement of guns and the Second Amendment.
The American response to Covid-19 was to ignore prevention and insist on “freedom.” While there is good evidence for many policies—assault weapons and large capacity magazine bans—that can reduce fatalities, 2021 represents a moment to not only intervene through new policy action around gun safety, but to address causes. Community initiatives matter, reaching into social networks and neighborhoods. Gun violence prevention is a means to address systemic issues. Gun ownership divides America.
With Covid-19 rates dropping, with spring here and everyone headed outside, we worry that the country remains febrile and trigger-ready. Gun violence, like Covid-19, raises questions about the obligation to protect ourselves and others.
Michael Stein & Sandro Galea
As we re-emerge from the pandemic, 2021 stands to be a turning point year for public health. In The Turning Point’s weekly essays, we reflect on what we learned during 2020, and what we are learning during 2021, that can guide us to the creation of a better, healthier world.