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Research Tentatively Links COVID-19 Gun Sales Spike To Increased Violence

Signs in the window of a bar in downtown Graham, N.C.
Signs in the window of a bar in downtown Graham, N.C.

The coronavirus pandemic appears to have helped spur an increase in gun sales. New preliminary research suggests those additional sales could be linked to higher rates of gun violence.

“We find a significant increase in firearm violence in the United States associated with the coronavirus pandemic-related surge in firearm purchasing,” according to findings published by researchers from the University of California–Davis and the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center. The findings have been publicly released but not yet been peer reviewed.

The researchers analyzed monthly firearms purchases and firearms violence for the lower 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii had missing or incomplete data) and the District of Columbia from January 2018 through May 2020. Based on their modeling and preliminary conclusions, the researchers estimate Americans bought 2.1 million more firearms than past buying trends would indicate — what they call excess firearms purchases — from March-May 2020, the months in which the coronavirus pandemic began to hit hardest in the United States.

Further, the researchers estimated an 8% increase in firearms violence from March through May, or 776 additional injuries or deaths across the nation, which the researchers associate with the increase in purchasing. Firearm injuries include shootings, homicides and suicides.

The study’s authors noted that the increase in sales alone likely wasn’t enough to fully explain the increase in violence. “The pandemic has exacerbated factors that contribute to interpersonal violence, including financial stress, tension, trauma, worry, and a sense of hopelessness,” they wrote.

“All of that can make people feel on edge, hopeless,” said Julia Schleimer, the study’s lead author and a UC Davis data analyst. “Again, the trauma is something that drives violence, so it’s important to recognize all of those contributing factors.”

The study has not been peer-reviewed, a process that can take many months. Schleimer said the authors plan to submit the work for peer review, but wanted to release the findings because of their timely relevance. Before most academic journals accept research for publication, the findings are reviewed by other academics in fields similar to the authors, in an effort to ensure veracity.

Previous studies have linked firearm access to an increased risk of violence, including homicide.

Preliminary data and estimates show an even bigger spike in gun sales in June. Schleimer said her team plans to continue their work as the pandemic crawls on. She expected to see another uptick in firearms violence associated with the increase in sales from June.

Excess firearms sales were based on modeling, which determined the estimate of 2.1 million excess sales for the three-month period. However, modeling isn’t an exact measurement. If the model was run continuously, 95% of the results would fall between the range of 1.2 million and 3 million excess firearms sales. In research terms, this range is referred to as a 95% confidence interval.

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