Between March 2020 and April 2021, there were approximately 550,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. That’s a staggering number of people who might still be alive if not for the pandemic – but it’s not the whole picture. There were also people alive who might otherwise not be: with schools closed, the US experienced a March without school shootings for the first time in 18 years; with businesses and workplaces shut down, the dozen or so annual mass public shootings the country had come to expect disappeared.
It seemed like the official statistics were starting to confirm something that, to many, made intuitive sense: with society under lockdown and the population staying home, gun violence would plummet. However, a new study published today in the journal Scientific Reports has shown that in reality, the opposite was happening: gun violence rates soared by more than 30 percent during the pandemic. In some states, like Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, the rate of gun violence more than doubled.
“We found a strong association between the COVID-19 pandemic time frame and an increase in gun violence in the U.S. compared to the pre-pandemic period,” explains the study. “While stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures are vital to contain the spread of COVID 19, we also need to be aware of the unintended social and economic stressors that may lead to gun violence.”
That’s especially bad news when hospitals and health care systems are still overwhelmed by the pandemic, the researchers point out. Resources like blood have been severely depleted by the pandemic – some hospitals reported having enough for one transfusion only per day, with surgeries were postponed nationwide – and ICU units and staff are already taken up by COVID-19 patients.
“We need I.C.U. beds, we need ventilators, we need personnel to care for the wave of Covid-19 patients. But gunshot victims are now fighting for space and resources inside America’s overcrowded I.C.U.s,” wrote Elinore Kaufman, a fellow in surgical critical care and trauma surgery at the University of Pennsylvania back in April 2020.
“As our I.C.U.s fill up with patients struggling to breathe, we look around and ask: Can we save a bed, can we save two beds, for the gunshot victims we know are coming next? Who can watch these ventilated patients if we have to call doctors to the operating room to give a hand?”
Long queues outside gun stores became a common sight throughout 2020, and today’s study bears that out: there was a “significant increase” in the number of criminal background checks carried out for gun purchases during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders than during the same period one year earlier.
Although the authors do suggest this increase in firearm ownership as a possible reason for the uptick in gun violence, an earlier study suggested there was no clear association between the two, instead concluding the problem stemmed from “other factors, like job loss, economic change, the closure of schools and community organizations and nonprofits, and civil unrest.”
Today’s study reaches a similar conclusion. The pandemic has created a “substantial increase in the burden of depressive symptoms in the U.S,” the study explains, which could have led to more firearm-related suicides. People have been forced to stay away from family and friends, it adds, which may have intensified psychological stress and depressive symptoms.
“The pandemic has yielded harmful ripple effects that need to be addressed,” co-lead investigator Paddy Ssentongo concluded in a statement. “The spike in gun violence in the era of COVID-19 comes as a stark reminder that we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. Now is the time to focus on this public health crisis.”