Gun Violence Rose in Some US Cities During COVID-19 Shutdowns

By Lisa Rappaport

June 01, 2020

(Reuters Health) - Gun violence was on the rise in several major American cities amid stay-at-home orders issued in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, a new study suggests.

Researchers performed a cross-sectional analysis of gun violence data from police and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City since the beginning of 2020. They looked at gun-related incidents, victims, and deaths through April 4 and compared outcomes to preceding years.

In New York City, there were 172 shooting incidents in 2020 through April 4, an 11.7% increase over the same period in 2019 and an 18.6% increase over 2018. Baltimore had 180 shooting incidents through April 4 of this year, a 2.0% increase over 2019. Chicago had 516 shootings in 2020 through April 4, up 23% from 2019 and 6% more than during the same period in 2018. Los Angeles, in contrast, reported a 9.3% decrease in 2020 shootings compared with 2019, but a 10% increase compared to 2018.

"Stay-at-home orders, whether informal or state mandated, may not necessarily guarantee a decrease in gun violence as one might expect," said coauthor Dr. Adel Elkbuli, of the division of trauma in the department of surgery at Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami.

"As our focus is to improve the health and wellbeing of our society as much as possible, we hope the data we report can better inform hospitals and public health professionals to make informative decisions and provide for the best trauma patient outcomes possible," Dr. Elkbuli said by email.

One possible explanation for the spike in gun violence in New York, Chicago, and Baltimore is surging unemployment during the pandemic, Elkbuli and colleagues write in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Gun violence may spike as people spend more time outside of the workplace, the researchers speculate.

It's also possible that rising alcohol sales documented during the pandemic contributed to increases in gun violence, the study team writes.

In many places across the U.S. where the economy ground to a halt to slow the spread of COVID-19, liquor stores remained open as essential businesses. Previous research has found that alcohol consumption can make people more likely to get into disputes that turn violent and involve firearms.

Increasing prevalence of guns may also be a factor, the authors note. Over the first three months of 2020, the FBI conducted 9.25 million background checks for firearm purchases, a 34.7% increase over the same three months of 2019.

One limitation of the study is that researchers didn't capture gun violence through the entire course of the pandemic, which is ongoing.

"Clearly, it's still a developing topic," said Dr. Justin Hatchimonji, a general surgery resident and outcomes researcher in the Department of Surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"Because it has only been a couple of months, it has been hard to know yet whether we are seeing a true, statistically significant increase in gun violence on the national level during the pandemic," Dr. Hatchimonji, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

"We've got to simultaneously continue to practice the way we always have, maintain adequate staff on call 24/7, and ensure we have ICU beds for our trauma patients, and also adapt to COVID-era medical care, which, in our institution, means N95 respirators and the rest of the necessary PPE at all times in our trauma bay until patients can be ruled out for COVID," Dr. Hatchimonji said.

The best way to prevent gun violence during the pandemic is going to be by shoring up the social safety net, so that people have fewer economic stressors and more access to the services they need, Dr. Hatchimonji added.

"While physical distancing is undoubtedly the right thing to do from an infectious standpoint, we must be cautious not to allow it to become an abandonment of the highest-risk members of our community," Dr. Hatchimonji said. "We can't stop people from buying guns if governments at all levels continue to deem gun retailers essential; the best we can do is try to prevent people from wanting to use them."

SOURCE: American Journal of Emergency Medicine, online May 7, 2020.