As Covid cases surge once more in the US, another public health crisis is pummelling the country too. Last year, gun killings soared by around 4,000, to almost 20,000 in total – the worst single-year increase on record. So far, 2021 looks even worse. In the first five months alone, more than 8,100 people died. America is set for the deadliest toll in nearly two decades.
Alarmingly, there is also a surge in gun purchases. The US already had more guns than people when sales began rising a few years ago. But last year saw a 64% jump compared with the previous year, to an estimated 20m guns. Around a fifth of buyers were first-time owners. The pandemic sparked a rush to purchase firearms, and some bought because so many others were doing so. The backlash against Black Lives Matter protests may have played a part. Black Americans saw the highest increase in gun ownership and, reportedly, Asian Americans also bought more guns, as hate crimes have risen. Sales have continued to grow this year, with manufacturers struggling to produce enough ammunition.
Research so far does not suggest a direct correlation between the rises in gun sales and violence. Experts point instead to economic desperation, isolation and the loss of social structure with the closure of schools and community organisations by the pandemic, and the disruption to prevention initiatives – such as the work of violence interruptors, who help to mediate when conflict develops. But the increase in ownership is nonetheless disturbing, and one study – not yet peer-reviewed – suggests that states with lower levels of violent crime pre-Covid saw a stronger connection between additional gun purchases and more gun violence.
Though mass shootings this spring helped to push gun violence up the political agenda, they account for fewer than 1% of firearms deaths. Shootings make headlines when they happen somewhere unexpected or there are large numbers of fatalities; the reality is a daily toll of violence, concentrated in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of colour. Joe Biden, in talking of two mass killings that sparked huge attention, noted: “You probably didn’t hear it, but between those two incidents, less than one week apart, there were more than 850 additional shootings that took the lives of more than 250 people, and left 500 injured.”
The president’s response includes predictable, if welcome, measures such as tightening regulations on the sale of “ghost guns” assembled from kits. The striking and overdue change was the $5bn earmarked in the infrastructure bill for prevention funding, though that may not survive congressional politicking. Community intervention programmes have been proven to work. The administration is to be applauded for recognising that while gun controls are essential, they cannot be sufficient in a country already awash with firearms. Nor will simply pouring more money into the police when those disproportionately hurt by gun violence – young black men – are also disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.
The amount of weaponry in the US potentially destabilises its neighbours. The Mexican government is taking gunmakers to court in Boston, arguing that lax controls add to the flow of illegal arms across the border. About 70% of the weapons seized in Mexico came from its northern neighbour.
With gun violence costing America an estimated $280bn a year, a much bigger investment in prevention is both necessary and affordable. Other items on the administration’s list – such as bans on assault weapons and improved background checks – require congressional action that is unlikely. The National Rifle Association maintains significant political clout despite its disarray. It has also achieved what it wanted in exchange for its investment in Donald Trump: a strongly pro-gun supreme court, which is likely to hear a second amendment case soon, reviewing a New York law that strictly limits the carrying of guns outside the owner’s home. Legislative progress, however limited, could soon be unwound. In the face of such developments, and the fast-rising human toll, never have concerted efforts to tackle gun violence been more necessary.