America’s pre-existing social condition: A permissive gun culture

Last week I sat down to write about the 1 million American lives lost to COVID-19 over the past two years. But on that Friday, I happened to be standing outside my home with my dog when a man was gunned down right in front of me. And then in the week after, there were multiple mass shooting events, including a racially motivated grocery store rampage and another incomprehensible elementary school shooting. I realized that I needed to address another plague: gun violence.

When the COVID pandemic first started to wreak havoc on our country in 2020, Americans ran out and bought 22 million guns — a 64 percent spike over 2019. This led to record gun homicides and non-suicide-related shootings that claimed approximately 19,300 lives, a 25 percent increase from 2019, and injuring tens of thousands more. While official data aren’t yet available, this trend continued into 2021 and 2022.

Gun violence is a result of many interacting factors — poverty, trauma, a lack of education, discrimination and – of course – American’s effortless access to firearms. And during the COVID pandemic, increased psychological distress, erosion of social networks, high unemployment and record increases in gun sales led to a pandemic of violence. Altogether, the nation tallied roughly 93,000 injuries and deaths (including suicides) from gun-related violence between Jan. 1, 2019, and March 31, 2021.

Gun violence isn’t just a tragedy for its immediate victims and their families. Its effects radiate throughout affected communities. Witnessing someone get gunned down in the street also leaves emotional, physical, legal and financial scars. This week I’ve found myself jumping at any loud noise. Sitting outside on the porch, I wondered if the regular sounds of a city – construction or a car’s wheels driving over a metal plate in the road – were gun shots.

Gun violence also brings big economic costs. Forty-nine percent of gun violence survivors said they needed legal assistance as the victim of a crime; 40 percent needed financial assistance for medical expenses; and 7 percent needed assistance covering funeral-related expenses. In D.C., each fatal shooting costs the city roughly $1.53 million.

Seconds after I saw the victim shot and killed, I raced into my house and called the police. First responders were on the scene within minutes, though in this case his friends took him to the hospital. Now the police are investigating, social services are connecting with his family, and should they find the suspect, the city will use the full weight of the legal system to press charges. Taxpayers foot the bill for everything.

America’s gun death rate (which is 13 times higher than in other high-income countries) makes us a global outlier. Because the U.S. has roughly 120 firearms per 100 residents, we spend more than other countries on addressing the aftermath of gun violence.

Less than 24 hours after I witnessed gun violence take another life in D.C., 400 miles away in Buffalo, N.Y., a teenager addled by online conspiracy theories went into a grocery store and killed 10 Black shoppers. Although the mass shooter was just 18, he had no trouble getting his hands on a weapon of war to ensure a big body count. And then just days later, another shooter killed young students and staff at an elementary school in Texas.

This is insane, yet I realize nothing is likely to change. I gave up my hopes of meaningful gun control at the federal level after 26 elementary school children and teachers were murdered in 2012 and Congress failed to change our laws. And gun control at the state level doesn’t work when porous borders allow for the importation of guns from more gun-friendly states. Finally, the use of “ghost guns,” or untraceable guns made from kits, are also on the rise — police recovered almost 20,000 of these guns in 2021.

COVID-19 was a world-changing public health event. Countries everywhere have scrambled to make themselves more resilient against future pandemics. But the United States suffered from a pre-existing social condition – a permissive gun culture – that engendered a secondary epidemic of gun violence. And sadly, we show no sign of responding resolutely to that public health emergency.

Arielle Kane is the director of health policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Gun culture in the United States mass shooting Uvalde school shooting

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