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Cases of gun violence surged in the US during the pandemic

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Gun violence rose by 31 per cent in the US during the first 13 months of the covid-19 pandemic, though it is unclear why.

“We know gun violence has been rising in the US, but this was a significant leap from previous years,” says Paddy Ssentongo at Pennsylvania State University. “I was surprised by how stark the results were.”

He and his colleagues compared rates of gun violence across each US state for the first 13 months of the pandemic – 1 March 2020 to 31 March 2021 – with the 13 months prior to the start of the pandemic – 31 January 2019 to 29 February 2020.

The team used data from the not-for-profit Gun Violence Archive, which collects police records on both injuries and deaths caused by guns.

For example, the number of injuries from guns in the US between 2018 and 2019 rose by 7 per cent, from 28,000 to 30,000. But during the covid-19 pandemic, the researchers found a 33 per cent rise in gun injuries, with numbers rising from 32,348 in the pre-pandemic period they analysed to 43,288 in first 13 months of the pandemic.

The team also found that 28 states had a particularly significant rise in gun violence during the pandemic, including Iowa, Vermont and North Dakota. Minnesota saw the highest jump with a 120 per cent rise.

Overall, the team found that there were 21,504 deaths in the US involving the use of guns during the pandemic, a 29 per cent increase on the 16,687 deaths in the 13 months before the pandemic. Looking at both gun injuries and deaths in total – the team saw a 31.2 per cent rise in incidents during the pandemic.

The only state that saw a significant drop in gun violence during the pandemic was Alaska, where there was a 33 per cent drop. “The important thing to note here is that these percentage changes don’t tell you about how much violence these states had in the first place,” says Ssentongo. “For example, Alaska already had pretty low levels of gun violence,” so the number of cases of gun violence hasn’t dropped as much as other states.

The researchers also couldn’t determine how many of these gun deaths were suicides or homicides as several of the police cases are ongoing. “We would have liked to analyse this,” says Ssentongo. “We just don’t know for sure if the rate of suicide rose in the pandemic yet.”

However, Ssentongo’s findings do correlate with a rise in background checks for gun purchases conducted by the FBI during the pandemic. From March to June 2020, the FBI carried out 42 per cent more of these checks in comparison to the same months in 2019. A recent study by researchers at Harvard University and Northeastern University found that 6.5 per cent of US adults bought a gun in 2020, a rise from 5.3 per cent in 2019.

“We know that when people get access to guns, they are more likely to be involved in gun violence,” says Ssentongo.

“It’s shocking how little we know about this rise,” says Mark Rosenberg at the The Task Force for Global Health in the US and former gun violence lead at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There’s been very little research on gun violence in the US for 20 years and our lack of knowledge on this reflects that.”

Need a listening ear? UK Samaritans: 116123; US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255; hotlines in other countries.

Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-98813-z

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