As the Covid-19 pandemic surges throughout the US, state and federal governments are taking historic measures to ensure public safety. From social distancing to locking down public areas to shutting down hundreds of businesses, American life and culture have been fundamentally altered with one exception: access to guns.
The March 28 guidance issued by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) that declared gun stores and manufacturers “essential infrastructure” has allowed for a second pandemic of gun violence to fester. As cities see a decrease in most crime while people stay home, tragically, violent gun crimes and gun homicide rates remain steady, and in some cases have even increased. The research clearly shows that guns are far more likely to be used to kill the gun owner or family members in a homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting.
The CISA designation as “essential” came after weeks of intensive lobbying by the gun industry. The fatal decision and the unwillingness to close gun stores comes at a time when gun sales are sky-rocketing nationwide. The FBI’s National Instant Check System (NICS) for March 2020 was 12% higher than the previous monthly record. In Oregon, the monthly firearms background checks doubled from the monthly average to more than 50,000 in March alone. Gun stores across the country report long lines, and ghost gun sales have exploded.
Pro-gun commentators such as John Lott cheer the “essential” label and the surge of gun sales, arguing that firearms are necessary to keep people safe. The argument originates from heavily flawed research from the 1990s, which estimated 2.5 million defensive gun uses annually. That talking point is a thoroughly repudiated myth with a mountain of academic evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion.
Firearms are not used in millions of instances of defense gun use every year. In fact, there are only about 2,000 verified cases annually, which are a fraction of the 39,000 firearm deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, hundreds of thousands of abusive uses, and more than 200,000 firearm thefts annually.
The reality is that having a firearm in the home doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide for all the inhabitants. During the nation-wide lockdown, this increased risk is hitting four areas of gun violence especially hard: unintentional shootings, domestic violence, suicide, and gun thefts.
Firearms in the home, especially when improperly stored, combined with a household of curious children, is a recipe for tragedy. US children under the age of 15 are already 9 times more likely to die in an unintentional shooting than their peers in the developed world, and states with higher rates of gun ownership experience a higher rate of unintentional child shootings.
During this pandemic, many domestic violence victims are trapped with their abusers. Domestic violence is 5 times more lethal with a firearm in the home. A 2004 study comparing women killed by an intimate partner to those who were abused but survived found that half the female homicide victims lived in a home with a firearm while only 16% of women who were abused but survived lived with a firearm. With the additional stresses created by the lockdown, these figures could become significantly worse.
As mentioned previously, a firearm in the home triples the risk of suicide. This statistic is backed by dozens of studies that find that firearm ownership is strongly associated with an increase in suicides. The act of attempting suicide is frequently impulsive, and the increased lethality of a firearm over other methods does not provide a second chance. Adding firearms to the mix of economic struggle, fear, and loneliness creates a lethal cocktail.
Finally, one of the most long-lasting impacts of the spike in gun sales will be an increase in gun thefts. A 2002 study found that increased levels of gun ownership were associated with higher rates of burglary, implying that guns were an attractive target for criminals rather than a deterrent. These firearm thefts in turn fuel the vast unregulated market of private sales that allow easy access to firearms for criminals.
By declaring gun stores essential, states and the US Government are perpetuating the myth that firearms make us safer, and that guns are frequently and effectively used in self-defense, marginalizing the overwhelming academic evidence that firearms in the home makes us less safe. Combined with the surge in gun sales and the fear-based marketing campaign by the gun lobby, states failing to protect their residents from a surge of gun ownership will add fuel to America’s gun violence epidemic — one that will continue long after the Coronavirus pandemic abates.
Devin Hughes, CFA is the President of GVPedia, a comprehensive resource providing public access to research on gun violence.