The U.S. firearm homicide rate spiked 35% in 2020, the first full year of the coronavirus pandemic, rising to the highest level in almost three decades of record-keeping, according to data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The agency reported 19,350 firearm homicides in the U.S. in 2020, compared with 18,253 in 1993, the first year for which Bureau of Justice Statistics data are available, although the per capita death toll was higher that year.
Gun homicides increased across every age group and ethnicity, as well as in rural, suburban and metropolitan areas. The increase was disproportionately felt by non-Hispanic Black males between the ages of 10 and 44, however. Rates of firearm homicide were higher at higher poverty levels, where they also showed larger increases.
The CDC also reported 24,245 cases of suicide by gun in 2020, a 1.4% rise over the previous year. The bulk of the increase occurred among non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native populations, where the rate of suicide by firearm increased by 41.8%.
"The tragic and historic increase in firearm homicide and the persistently high rates of firearm suicide underscore the urgent need for action to reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "By addressing factors contributing to homicide and suicide, and providing support to communities, we can help stop violence now and in the future."
The extreme prevalence of guns in the U.S. makes comparing firearm homicide rates in America with those in other countries difficult. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, however, compared overall homicide rates during the early months of the pandemic in several countries. In most cases, homicides fell sharply during the early stages of the pandemic, when lockdowns were in force across many nations.
In most countries, the homicide rate rebounded later in the year, bringing numbers back toward recent averages. Some countries, such as Spain, South Africa and Kazakhstan, experienced sharp increases in the homicide rate in the latter part of 2020.
According to CDC data, 79% of all homicides in the U.S. in 2020 involved firearms, up from between 73% and 75% during the previous five years. Guns were used in 53% of suicides in the same year, up from between 50% and 51% in the previous five years.
The CDC data demonstrated a high level of association between elevated firearms homicide and suicide rates and poor economic conditions, including income inequality, unemployment, and housing and economic instability.
"Firearm homicide rates were lowest and increased least at the lowest poverty level (from 2.0 to 2.4 per 100,000 persons) and were higher and showed larger increases at higher poverty levels (e.g., from 7.7 to 10.8 at the highest level)," the report found. "By race and ethnicity, rates were highest and increased most among Black people at the two highest poverty levels. Associations between poverty and firearm suicide are also evident."
Calls for action
The CDC report called for a "comprehensive" approach in addressing the factors known to contribute to gun violence.
"The increases in firearm homicide rates and persistently high firearm suicide rates in 2020, with increases among populations that were already at high risk, have widened disparities and heightened the urgency of actions that can have immediate and lasting benefits," the report found.
"State and local governments, community partners, and health care and other service providers can use the best available evidence to implement comprehensive approaches to prevent homicide and suicide, including addressing physical, social and structural conditions that contribute to violence and disparities," it said.
Among the various efforts the agency recommended were measures to "enhance economic and household stability" — community-based efforts to reach people at the highest risk of gun violence through conflict resolution, suicide prevention services and other programs. The agency also recommended raising awareness about safe firearms storage options to reduce access to guns by children and others who should not have them.
In discussing its findings, the CDC said the data do not support any specific claims about why gun homicides rose as sharply as they did in 2020.
"The findings of this study do not support causal inferences, and reasons for increasing rates and widening inequities are unclear and potentially complex," the agency said. Among a number of possible drivers, it said, were increased stress and "disruptions in health, social and emergency services during the COVID-19 pandemic"; damaged relationships between communities and law enforcement agencies; increases in firearm purchases; and the exacerbation of long-standing economic disparities in high-risk communities.
Advocates on both sides of the gun control debate had their own ideas about the reasons behind the increase in gun homicides, however.
"Record increases in gun sales, children homebound like never before, social isolation, and economic struggles due to COVID-19 put many people at increased risk for gun violence," the group Everytown for Gun Safety said in a statement. "The pandemic has also highlighted the danger of having weak gun laws that enable easy access to firearms by people with dangerous histories."
Fred Guttenberg, a gun safety activist, pointed to the sharp increase in firearm sales during the pandemic as the root of the problem. Guttenberg's daughter, Jaime, was murdered in 2018 during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,
On Twitter, he wrote, "Nobody should be surprised that gun deaths reached the highest level ever recorded in the United States in 2020. Sadly, this was predictable & preventable. And we did nothing. A gun surge was unleashed during COVID & the results have been deadly."
In fact, while the absolute number of firearm homicides set a record in 2020, Bureau of Justice Statistics data show the rate of gun homicides was higher in 1993, at about 7 per 100,000. The rate was 6.1 per 100,000 in 2020, according to the CDC.
"I would point out, first of all, that last year from coast to coast — in other words, from Philadelphia to Portland (Oregon), we saw in Democrat-controlled cities homicide records being set," Erich Pratt, senior vice president of the Gun Owners of America advocacy group, told VOA.
Pratt said numerous public policy decisions made at the local level by "leftist politicians" caused a spike in violent crime, including the abolition of cash bail, early release of certain criminal defendants, and calls to "defund" the police.
"The murder rate, which had been on a downward trend for over 20 years, all of a sudden spiked over the last two years," Pratt said. "And that's not surprising, given what was happening."
In an email exchange with VOA, National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide said, "As communities across the country chose to defund law enforcement, elect soft-on-crime prosecutors, prematurely release dangerous prisoners and institute no-cash bail, no one should be surprised to see an uptick in violent crime."