Coronavirus pandemic meets America’s gun crisis

While mass shootings may have fallen in the months of COVID-19, everyday gun violence, as well as violence that results from domestic abuse, suicides and unintentional shootings, may be increasing.

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to panic-fueled gun purchases. FBI data shows that federally licensed gun dealers requested 1 million more background checks in March of 2020 than they did in March of 2019. Here, customers line up outside a gun store in Culver City, California on April 15.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Americans across the nation have quarantined at home for weeks, shuttered their businesses, accepted significant pay cuts, juggled childcare with other responsibilities and bravely performed essential jobs and services to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and help those of us in need. 

But for some Americans, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis intersects with another long-standing pandemic: our nation’s ongoing gun epidemic and weak gun laws, creating unique challenges that Congress must address as it contemplates a fourth stimulus measure. 

In fact, while public mass shootings may have fallen in the months of COVID-19, everyday gun violence, violence that results from domestic abuse, suicides, and unintentional shootings may be increasing. Data analyzed by Guns Down America from the Gun Violence Archive shows that nationally, fatalities from gun violence increased 14 percent in the first two weeks of April this year compared to the same period last year. Firearm fatalities rose by over 10 percent when compared to the first half of April 2018. 

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In Chicago, the police department is reporting a double-digit increase in gun incidents compared to this time last year, forcing community organizations like Chicago Cred to fight two public health crises simultaneously: preaching violence reduction in hotspots throughout the city while delivering basic goods and education to communities in need. Philadelphia is similarly experiencing a 17 percent increase in shootings compared to this time last year; and in Baltimore, gun incidents increased so dramatically toward the end of March that Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young begged residents to “put down the guns.”

Many city leaders fear that shootings may increase further once lockdowns are lifted and the weather improves. 

Simultaneously, at least 142 American cities and counties in 48 states are reporting significant spikes in calls to domestic violence hotlines, and we’re reading heartbreaking media reports of COVID-related homicides, unintentional shootings and multiple homicide suicides connected to the stress, anxiety, and economic hardship of the current pandemic. As three doctors recently observed in the Annals of Internal Medicine, America is “a society now primed for a suicide epidemic triggered by COVID-19.” 

Their prediction rings even more true in light of media reports of panic-fueled gun purchases and FBI data showing that federally licensed gun dealers requested one million more background checks in March of 2020 than they did in March of 2019. 

A spike in gun deaths is not inevitable; Congress can save thousands of lives if it addresses the consequences of the coronavirus gun violence surge by adding key provisions to the next stimulus measure. 

First, lawmakers should provide additional funding to the FBI to process the surge in background checks we’re experiencing. After all, the FBI conducted a record 3,740,688 background checks in March of 2020, including the highest single day on record on March 20, with 210,208 checks. In March of 2019, an FBI official admitted to Congress that the current background check system was already strained, with the bureau having to pull staff from other departments in order to handle surges in requests. 

Congress should close the Charleston loophole once and for all. The loophole, which allows gun dealers to sell firearms when the FBI is unable to complete a background check in three days, permitted a white supremacist to obtain a gun and assassinate nine people at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. More than 270,000 background checks are not completed in this three-day-window each year, resulting in thousands of individuals, whose background checks later revealed they were prohibited from owning firearms, accessing deadly weapons

Every 16 hours, an American woman is fatally shot by a current or former intimate partner, a horrific statistic that will likely worsen as tens of thousands of women remain stuck at home with their abusers during a period of intense and unprecedented emotional and economic anxiety. A bipartisan group of senators and representatives have already requested additional funding for domestic violence services. Congress should appropriate such funds and extend additional dollars to suicide prevention to ensure that law enforcement, domestic service providers and the courts are able to coordinate and provide safety to those at risk. 

Our lawmakers must also extend federal grants to frontline gun violence intervention workers serving communities already disproportionately impacted by the virus. Congress must recognize that evidence-based intervention initiatives are essential for ending cycles of violence and, during these trying times, virus spread. 

Finally, gun violence prevention advocates and gun enthusiasts agree that the surge in first-time gun buyers rushing out to purchase firearms in the midst of a national health pandemic (without first receiving the proper training) will lead to more instances of unintentional shootings and other gun tragedies. Lawmakers must provide funding for public education efforts around the danger of untrained individuals bringing something far more deadly into their home than coronavirus and the importance of safe gun storage. 

Unless Congress acts, for far too many people the thing that cuts their lives short won’t be coronavirus, but a gun.

Arne Duncan is the founder of Chicago Cred, a gun violence intervention organization in Chicago. He was President Barack Obama’s first Secretary of Education. Igor Volsky is the co-founder and Executive Director of Guns Down America. Trevon Bosley is president of B.R.A.V.E. Youth Leaders Violence Prevention organization and a March For Our Lives Youth Congress Member.

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