Gun homicides rose 35% nationwide during the first year of the pandemic to the highest level in 25 years, according to recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC and director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, told ABC News, “but it’s heartbreaking.”
Gun murders rose most sharply among youth and young adults, 40% between ages 10 and 24, CDC data shows. The increases were also higher for people of color: Firearm homicide rates involving black men ages 10 to 24, already 21 times higher than those of white men the same age, rose even more in 2020.
The study suggests that the rise in violence could be attributed to social and economic pressures stemming from the pandemic that reinforced “old” inequalities between communities.
The report also found that while the increase in firearm suicides was less than that of firearm homicides, the large number of firearm suicides still outpaced homicides. There were 24,245 firearm suicides in 2020, according to the report, compared to 19,350 firearm homicides.
“These statistics have devastating effects on families, schools and entire communities, and have lasting consequences for us as individuals and as a society,” said Thomas Simon, associate director for science in the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention, during a press conference on Tuesday.
“Our reports contain statistics and numbers, but it is also important to reflect on the individual lives lost,” he added, “and even one homicide or suicide is too many.”
The new data from the CDC confirms trends identified by ABC News when studying data collected by the Gun Violence Archive over the past year. It also builds on other research showing increased rates of gun purchases and gun violence during the pandemic.
Guns remained available for purchase throughout the pandemic, including during intermittent stay-at-home orders, due to exemptions designating firearms retailers (and shooting ranges) as “essential businesses” in all states except four. A December study found that 7.5 million Americans became new gun owners during the pandemic, 5 million of whom lived in a household that previously had no guns.
Buying patterns also show no signs of abating. The FBI has conducted more than 10 million background checks on firearms, which are often used as a proxy for purchases, from 2022 through April.
Gun violence has increased along with increased shopping, according to other studies. According to an October study, gun violence increased in 28 states during the pandemic; another found that firearms incidents increased 15%, and nonfatal firearm injuries increased 34%, during the pandemic.
Younger Americans have increasingly been collateral damage to this violence. Firearm deaths in children ages 1 to 4 have increased 5% annually since 1999. And in the first six months of the pandemic, the risk of firearm injury in children under 12 was 90% higher than in the pre-pandemic period.
Monika Goyal, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, called the statistics “sobering” and added that they reinforce what she has been seeing clinically: that children are increasingly being targeted.
The pandemic’s rise in gun purchases, violence, and homicides has been attributed in part to intensifying economic pressures such as unemployment, housing insecurity, and child care.
“Long-standing systemic inequalities and structural racism have resulted in limited economic, housing, and educational opportunities associated with inequalities in risk of violence,” the authors of the new CDC study wrote, “The COVID-19 Pandemic could have exacerbated existing social and economic stressors. .”
Social factors such as a decline in mutual aid, a pause in in-person harm reduction initiatives, and political unrest may also have fueled these patterns, the researchers say.
“Stay-at-home orders and physical distancing likely increased the guardianship people had over their homes and property,” the authors of a February report wrote, which could “help explain the observed relationship to violence” and the fact that “interpersonal interactions…despite occurring less frequently during the pandemic, may have been increasingly prone to violence.”
According to Houry, policy changes are urgently needed to stem worrying and worsening trends in gun violence.
“[Gun] violence is not inevitable,” he told ABC News, “it is preventable.”
The CDC authors offered several recommendations to that end, including expanded wellness policies, empowering community-based harm reduction efforts, and promoting strategies for urban renewal, among other initiatives.
“The findings of this study underscore the importance of comprehensive strategies that can stop violence,” they wrote. “Now and in the future”.