Policy

Gun violence spiked in first year of pandemic, CDC finds

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. saw the highest firearm homicide rate in more than 25 years, according to a new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Firearms were involved in 79 percent of all homicides in 2020, an increase of nearly 35 percent from 2019. 

Gun-related homicides increased across all demographics, in metropolitan and rural areas and among both men and women.

However, the increase was not equally distributed, and highlighted significant disparities in race, ethnicity and poverty levels. The largest increases in 2020 were among young Black males between the ages of 10 and 44. 

The rate of gun homicides among the youngest Black males, between the ages of 10-24, was 21.6 times higher than white males of the same age, the CDC found.

Rates of firearm homicide were higher and showed larger increases in areas with higher poverty levels. Counties with the highest poverty level had firearm homicide and firearm suicide rates that were 4.5 and 1.3 times as high, respectively, as counties with the lowest poverty level, the CDC found. 

“The tragic and historic increase in firearm homicide and the persistently high rates of firearm suicide underscore the urgent need for action to reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. 

“By addressing factors contributing to homicide and suicide and providing support to communities, we can help stop violence now and in the future.”  

The study did not reach any conclusions about the reasons for increasing rates of gun violence, but it’s likely that the pandemic had an outsized role.

“When you look at a lot of these communities that were already hard hit, you add stressors to them, job loss, economic uncertainty, social isolation, those can be risk factors for violence,” said Debra Houry, director of the agency’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 

In an interview, Houry stressed that firearm violence is preventable.

“A lot of times people find injuries and death are inevitable. You know, just kind of something that happens, and something that happens to somebody else. And it’s not, it’s preventable, and it happens to our family members or community members, those around us and so we must act now to prevent it,” Houry said.

Policies like child care subsidies and affordable housing can help reduce poverty and relieve some economic stress on families. Houry specifically noted that earned income tax credits have been shown to reduce violence and violent crimes by 10 percent.

At the community level, she said initiatives like restoring vacant lots by planting trees and grass have been shown to reduce firearm violence. 

The study marks the first time the CDC has focused a “Vital Signs” report on firearm homicides and suicides. “Vital Signs” reports focus on public health threats, but go beyond numbers and cover solutions.

For decades, Congress blocked funding for the CDC to study gun violence. The research was never technically banned, but a prohibition on “advocacy” effectively stifled any studies from moving forward.

Money was appropriated in 2019 for the first time in 20 years. The CDC is currently funding 18 different research projects, and Houry said the hope is there will be more funding to expand the research.  

“There’s so much that can be done. And so CDC is really funding that research now to fill those gaps to really focus on programming strategies that work,” Houry said. 

Tags Firearms gun deaths gun violence gun violence Rochelle Walensky

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