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Rise in Gun Sales Amid Covid-19 Should Propel Philanthropy to Act

April 22, 2020   |   Brian Malte

By: Brian Malte, Executive Director, Hope and Heal Fund and Judy Belk, President & CEO, The California Wellness Foundation

These are uncertain and scary times. With COVID-19 spreading throughout our country, people are doing their best to adapt to home isolation — stocking up on supplies like toilet paper and canned goods.

And guns.

If history is our guide, the surge in gun purchases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely be followed by an increase in intimate partner violence, suicides, and xenophobic hate crimes. This deadly combination of guns and violence threatens the safety of Americans already traumatized by fear of illness and death, economic stress, and necessary but sometimes difficult physical isolation. We are witnessing the convergence of two public health crises — and the results may be catastrophic, especially to those most vulnerable in our society.

Everyday gun violence has been a public health crisis long before our country knew the term COVID-19. Bringing even more guns into our homes only increases our risk of injury and death. In fact, a recently published study by the University of California, Davis, showed that California cities with greater increases in the rate of handgun purchasing were more likely to see a significant and prolonged increase in the rate of firearm injury.

The risks of guns in the home are well documented. Before the virus outbreak, 300 million guns were circulating in the U.S. Amid this gun purchasing surge, many states have classified gun stores as “essential businesses.” This means we can expect to see even more guns in homes and more first-time gun buyers – many without any knowledge of gun safety or proper storage practices.

Before COVID-19, more than 1 in 3 homes had a gun in the home and that percentage is almost certain to rise. What are the implications of this? Women and families are now told to isolate in their homes with their abusers – many of whom are now armed with a gun. When families are isolated in close quarters, intimate partner violence increases due to limited safe housing and loss of community networks. Suicide increases during economic downturns and access to a gun increases the risk of death by suicide by three times, leaving behind families and communities that will never completely heal.

The impact of increased gun sales will have a ripple effect far beyond the home. The FBI anticipates a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and anecdotal evidence of such incidents has been widely reported. We don’t have to go back very far to see the deadly consequences of armed hate. Last year in just eight days, public mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso and at the Gilroy Garlic Festival targeted Latinos. The El Paso shooter talked about “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and the Gilroy shooter had a “target list” which included religious groups. The combination of increased gun sales, anti-Asian sentiment and the dangerous rhetoric from public officials is a disaster in waiting.

While gun deaths and injuries affect all Americans, we know that gun violence adversely impacts our society’s most vulnerable, especially communities of color. Historically, income inequality is a driving force and root cause of gun violence. As the economy is ravaged by the COVID-19 outbreak, families already living paycheck-to-paycheck are facing even greater financial stress. When jobs disappear and school and afterschool programs are not in session, we see spikes in gun violence.

Buying more guns will not save us from COVID-19; rather, it runs the risk of putting our families and communities at greater risk of irreparable harm. Now is the time to recognize the collision of these two public health crises and challenges they bring; and together, we must do all we can to mitigate gun deaths, injuries and trauma. We must support our frontline workers, not only our doctors and nurses, but also those working on the frontlines of gun violence every day and our local and statewide domestic violence and suicide prevention organizations.

We all understand the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, the sacrifices we are all making, and our fears for our safety. But, more guns in more homes brings more dangers. If you are a gun owner, especially a first-time owner, know the importance of proper storage of firearms; lives are at stake. Recognize that for those in domestic violence situations, being at home doesn’t mean being safer, so spread the word about critical safety plans among families, friends and communities. And to recognize those who are at risk of suicide, learn how to know the signs.

Additional resources are available at hopeandhealfund.org.

Originally published on April 22, 2020 in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Photo Credit: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images