Gun sales in the US have continued at their record clip throughout 2021, following a massive surge in firearms purchases in 2020 during the pandemic and last summer’s George Floyd racial justice protests.
With as many as 400 million guns total in households across America, that has officials worried the weapons are helping fuel the recent uptick in violent crime throughout the country, which is expected to continue this summer as coronavirus restrictions relax and people begin having more contact with each other.
“Americans are in an arms race with themselves,” Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a city council member representing South Los Angeles, told the New York Times. “There was just as much a run on guns as on toilet paper in the beginning of the pandemic.”
This spring, for the first time ever, there were more than 1.2 million federal background checks for gun buyers, a proxy for overall gun sales in the US.
Preliminary data from Northeastern and Harvard University also indicates that one-fifth of those people were buying guns for the first time, and were less likely that usual to be white and male. Half were women, one-fifth were Black people, and one-fifth were Hispanic.
Generally, ownership has been declining since the late 1970s, according to survey data, though it has crept back up in the last decade. The pandemic-era arms race could play into an increase in violent crime afflicting many cities across the country in recent months, whether it was the recent high-profile mass shooting in San Jose, or the many more that never make the news.
Major cities across the country have reported surges in violent crime amid the broader social breakdown that occurred during the compounding pandemic-recession-racial reckonings last year. Los Angeles had 350 murders, the highest in a decade. Louisville, Kentucky, hit an all-time homicide record.
The trend looks set to continue. A sample of 37 cities showed that in the first three months of this year, the murder rate was up 18 per cent compared to the last year. In Chicago, 195 have been killed as of early May, the highest level in four years, while in New York, more than 500 died of gun violence, the highest level in a decade.
Still, it’s important not to let eye-popping statistics obscure the broader trends in US violence. Violent crime is well below historic peaks in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and has only been climbing back up since around 2014.
Both the causes and cures for violence are also many-faceted, though the perpetrators and victims of violent crime are often concentrated in segregated, high-poverty neighbourhoods which have suffered decades of under-investment and over-policing.
President Biden has proposed allocating $2.1 billion to the Department of Justice to address what he calls the “gun violence public health crisis” in America, though Congress has not yet been able to pass any of the sort of large-scale regulation that might put a dent in the tens of thousands of firearms deaths each year.