Surge in gun purchases in U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic

A team of experts from the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center says the purchase and interpersonal use of firearms in the United States has increased during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Julia Schleimer and colleagues report that a surge in the pandemic-related purchase of firearms between March and May this year was associated with an excess of fatal and nonfatal injuries, compared with if there had not been an increase in firearm purchasing during these months.

The researchers add that the finding is consistent with extensive research documenting an association between increased firearm access and a higher risk of firearm violence.

“Firearm violence prevention strategies may be particularly important during the pandemic,” warn Schleimer and colleagues.

A pre-print version of the paper can be accessed via the server medRxiv*, while the article undergoes peer review.

Nationwide trends in firearm purchasing (Panel A) and firearm violence (Panel B). Monthly firearm purchases per 100,000 population, with training data from January 2011 through February 2020. B) Monthly injuries from firearm violence per 100,000 population, with training data from January 2015 (earlier GVA data appear to reflect an undercount of events) through February 2020. Dotted line indicates March 2020. Blue bands indicate 80% and 95% prediction intervals.
Nationwide trends in firearm purchasing (Panel A) and firearm violence (Panel B). Monthly firearm purchases per 100,000 population, with training data from January 2011 through February 2020. B) Monthly injuries from firearm violence per 100,000 population, with training data from January 2015 (earlier GVA data appear to reflect an undercount of events) through February 2020. Dotted line indicates March 2020. Blue bands indicate 80% and 95% prediction intervals.

Firearm violence a leading cause of death in the U.S.

Firearm violence is a significant public health and safety problem and a leading cause of death and disability in the U.S.

An extensive body of literature has already established a link between the prevalence of firearm possession and rates of firearm violence at the individual, household, and population levels. The increasing purchase and ownership of firearms have previously been linked to mass shootings and shootings at political events that have then resulted in more firearm violence amongst the population.

The impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an array of social and economic disruptions in the U.S. Background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have found that in many states, the purchase of firearms started to increase around the time of the pandemic’s onset.

The pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of factors already known to play a role in interpersonal violence such as financial insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness.

“Violence at home might increase if stay-at-home orders increase contact between persons in violent relationships, including intimate partners, children, and vulnerable elders,” note Schleimer and colleagues. “A surge in firearm purchases following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic may increase rates of firearm violence.”

Now, the team has investigated the relationship between firearm purchasing and the rate of interpersonal firearm violence across the 48 contiguous U.S. states and the Columbia district during the first months of the pandemic.

What did the study involve?

The researchers used the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to approximate firearm purchasing and the Gun Violence Archive to gather information on firearm violence. The researchers then conducted a cross-sectional time-series study of the monthly purchase of firearms and of firearm violence between January 21st, 2020 (when COVID-19 was first reported in the U.S), and May 31st, 2020.

The results suggested a significant increase in firearm violence that was linked to a surge in firearm purchasing during the pandemic.

The researchers estimated that 2.1 million more firearms were bought between March and May than would usually be expected for these months. This translated as a 64.3% increase in volume and 645 more purchases per 100,000 people.

The researchers estimated that the relative firearm-related injury and death rate was 1.015 for every 100 extra purchases per 100,000 people. The models used to calculate this estimate controlled for variation in purchasing across different states and for impacts of the pandemic that are common to all states.

Overall, the number of fatal and nonfatal injuries was 776 more than would have been expected had there not been any increase in firearm purchasing between March and May.

Schleimer and colleagues say the risks associated with increased firearm availability are probably compounded by various impacts of the pandemic, including increased anxiety, financial problems, grief, fear, and race or economy-related inequality.

What are the study implications?

The team says the finding lends support to interventions that restrict firearm access, such as screening for ownership in a healthcare setting and assessing risk factors for violence.

“Given the impulsive nature of most firearm violence and the multiple strains associated with the pandemic, short-term crisis interventions, such as extreme risk protection orders and those involving violence intervention specialists, may be particularly useful during the pandemic,” advise the researchers.

Furthermore, before the pandemic, the most common reason for owning a firearm, especially a handgun, was to protect against people. However, Schleimer and colleagues say an increasing body of research is showing that more people owning firearms increases the risk of firearm injury rather than lowering it.

“Together, these findings suggest that addressing misperceptions about the health risks and benefits of firearm ownership and improving people’s sense of collective trust and security may reduce the burden of firearm violence,” suggests the team.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.

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