The dawn of a new year brings published assessments of the recent past. In recent weeks, I noticed news stories about the Centers for Disease Control’s final data on gun violence in 2020. We know from news reports that the social dislocation and economic stress of the pandemic, along with fear generated by simultaneously-occurring political conflicts, were associated with a record-setting pace of gun purchases. We also know from news reports that these gun purchases are associated with increases in gun violence.
Drawing from the summary compiled by Educational Foundation to Stop Gun Violence, here are a few “highlights” of the final CDC data for 2020:
- In 2020, there were 45,247 gun deaths in the U.S., the highest number of gun deaths ever in the U.S., and a 14% increase from 2019.
- The increase in homicides in the U.S. in 2020 was driven almost exclusively by guns.
- 79% of homicides were by firearm in 2020, the highest proportion on record.
- Gun homicides totaled 19,411 deaths.
- Gun suicides totaled 24,297 deaths.
- Gun homicides increased by 47% from 2019 to 2020 for children and teens under 18.
There are indications that the rate of increase slowed during 2021, yet still outpaced earlier years. In a nutshell, gun violence—long a significant problem for the United States—is an even more significant problem today. The data serve as a sobering reminder of the urgent need for action to reduce the risk and harm posed by the easy availability of firearms.
I had these data in mind when my eye was also caught in recent weeks by article titles of the sort that we frequently see and quickly forget. At the same time, I imagined an experiment in which I would ask students in my classes on gun policy to write brief analytical statements about what these titles may tell us about gun violence problems and potential remedial actions.
Read these titles (with some brief explanatory snippets) and imagine for yourselves what they say about the current state of affairs in the United States.
“A 12-year-old Wrote His Governor to Oppose a Gun Law. A Stray Bullet Killed Him on Christmas,” Washington Post, January 22, 2022 (washingtonpost.com)
[“12-year-old Artemis Rayford wrote a letter to tell Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee that he opposed a new law….that went into effect in July, allowing people 21 and older, and military service members 18 and up, to carry a weapon without any training or permit….Early Christmas morning, he was shot and killed by a stray bullet that came from outside the Memphis home he shared with his mother and 6-year-old sister”]
“British scientist visiting Atlanta suburb killed by stray bullet while lying in bed,” Washington Post, January 22, 2022 (washingtonpost.com)
“Crime in Houston: New Numbers Show Thousands of Guns Stolen from Cars and in the Hands of Criminals,” ABC13, January 11, 2022 (x99news.com)
[“ABC13 has obtained new statistics from the Houston Police Department showing that there were 2,604 reports of gun theft from vehicles in 2021. That is an increase compared to 2,368 reports of stolen weapons in 2020. “All those weapons stolen from a car end up in the hands of a criminal,” said…, a special agent responsible for Houston Field Division for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives…. Back in 2017, ABC13 Investigates sent surveys to every convicted murderer in Harris County who have used a weapon to kill someone since 2014. The majority of them said they used stolen weapons.”]
“The Oxford Shooting Shows the Limits of ‘Hardening’ Schools,’” The Trace, December 3, 2021 (thetrace.org)
“A Year In, President Biden’s Bold Gun Reform Agenda Remains Largely Aspirational,” The Trace, January 5, 2022 (thetrace.org)
We know from research that certain demographic groups experience high rates of gun violence victimization. For example, high rates of risk and harm from guns are experienced by women in abusive relationships (homicide), older white men in rural areas (suicide), and young men of color in metropolitan areas (homicide). Yet, these article titles remind us that the proliferation of guns poses risks for everyone. These risks are exacerbated by easy access to firearms by those who should not have them.
In Michigan, we know this from the recent Oxford High School shooting by a teen using an unsecured firearm from his home, while the news story from Houston provides another kind of example concerning the use of easily stolen guns in crimes. And on top of everything else, despite the increase in problems, the current composition of Congress—as well as our state legislature—keeps us stuck in a perpetual state of inaction on policy proposals to address gun violence. Yes, some public officials push for laws and policies to reduce risk and harm. But they are thwarted by the political power of those who, for ideological and political reasons, seem happy to tolerate a proliferation of firearms with minimal regulation.
The escalation of problems in this era of policy inaction is especially tragic because research shows us that specific measures can save lives and reduce risk and harm.
To quote one summary of research-based knowledge:
The study looked at gun regulation state by state in comparison with FBI data about gun homicides, gathered from police departments around the country. Analysis revealed that universal background checks, permit requirements, “may issue” laws (where local authorities have discretion in approving who can carry a concealed weapon), and laws banning people convicted of violent misdemeanors from possessing firearms are, individually and collectively, significantly able to reduce gun-related deaths. (Colarossi and McAlpine, 2019)
Additional studies show the benefits of other laws, such as safe storage laws and Extreme Risk Protection Order laws, in reducing specific harms, such as accidental shootings and suicides (Smith, 2020; Kavisto and Phalen, 2018).
Based on research and the experiences of other states, we can identify specific laws that would save lives without violating anyone’s Second Amendment rights. Yet, we remain stuck in place. We wait and worry and watch the new tragic headlines each week. We need not be passive, however. Each election year brings a new opportunity to act upon our concerns when we evaluate political candidates. Perhaps if we actually take notice of the continuous appearance of new tragic headlines, we can motivate ourselves and others to prioritize the issue of gun violence prevention when we choose new legislators in November.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Jessica Colarossi and Kat McAlpine, “The FBI and CDC Datasets Agree: Who Has Guns—Not Which Guns—Linked to Murder Rates,” The Brink: Pioneering Research from Boston University, August 6, 2019, https://www.bu.edu/articles/2019/state-gun-laws-that-reduce-gun-deaths/
Aaron Kavisto and Peter Lee Phalen, “The Effects of Risk-Based Firearm Seizure Laws in Connecticut and Indiana on Suicide Rates, 1981-2015,” Psychiatric Services, June 1, 2018 (ps.psychiatryonline.org).
Fran Smith, “Q&A: What a Major New Study on Gun Storage Laws Tells Us About Keeping Kids Safe,” Center for Health Journalism, March 6, 2020 (centerforhealthjournalism.org)