Reis Thebault, Washington Post, June 14, 2021
The shootings have come at a relentless pace. Gun violence this year has cut through celebrations and funerals, places of work and houses of worship. It has taken lives at a grocery store and in a fast-food drive-through lane.
By almost every measure, 2021 has already been a terrible year for gun violence. Many fear it will get worse. Last weekend alone, more than 120 people died in shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, with three especially dangerous incidents in Austin, Chicago and Savannah, Ga., leaving two dead and at least 30 injured.
Through the first five months of 2021, gunfire killed more than 8,100 people in the United States, about 54 lives lost per day, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization. That’s 14 more deaths per day than the average toll during the same period of the previous six years.
This year, the number of casualties, along with the overall number of shootings that have killed or injured at least one person, exceeds those of the first five months of 2020, which finished as the deadliest year of gun violence in at least two decades.
Experts have attributed the increase to a variety of new and long-standing issues — including entrenched inequality, soaring gun ownership, and fraying relations between police and the communities they serve — all intensified during the coronavirus pandemic and widespread uprisings for racial justice. The violence, its causes and its solutions have sparked wide-ranging and fierce policy debates.
The Post’s analysis found an increase in shootings during summers, especially last year, echoing a trend that law enforcement officials and gun violence researchers have warned about for years. With the weather warming, school letting out and virus-related restrictions falling away, leaders are worrying about a deadlier season than usual.
“I’m scared to death of the summer, I’ll be real honest,” said Mark Bryant, the Gun Violence Archive’s founder. “I expect this to be a record year.”
Gunfire deaths began to rise in April 2020, when covid-19 shut down much of the country, in-person schooling was paused and more than 20 million people lost their jobs. Gun violence — like the coronavirus — takes an unequal toll on communities of color. So as the pandemic took hold, it was one crisis on top of another.
In most places, violent-crime rates remain well below what they were in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period that gave way to “the great American crime decline.” But last year, in some of the country’s largest cities, homicides increased by a total of 30 percent when compared with 2019.
In July 2020, shooting deaths reached a peak of roughly 58 per day and continued, nearly unabated, around that level until early 2021.
Now, the numbers are rising again.
In the nation’s capital, 2020 set a recent record for homicides — mostly from gun violence — and their number is rising again, even with the annual summer crime prevention initiative well underway. Seventy-nine people were killed in the District during the first five months of 2021, a 23 percent increase over the previous year.
After a string of deadly shootings in Miami, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, went on national television to warn about the coming months.
“Unless we all start speaking up, speaking out and demanding our elected officials take action, we’re going to see a lot more bloodshed,” Acevedo, who also heads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”
A week after Acevedo’s TV appearance, a shooting at a Miami graduation party left three dead and five wounded.
Shootings have also increased in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to Columbus, Ohio. In Philadelphia, officials are preparing for what could be the deadliest year in the city’s history. The mayor is holding regular updates on gun violence, reminiscent of weekly coronavirus briefings.
But the rise in gun violence is not just a big-city phenomenon. The number of gunfire deaths has also increased in suburban and rural areas, though the overall numbers are lower because of smaller populations.
Researchers note a number of factors they say are driving the upswing, including the unprecedented surge in gun sales. In 2020, a year of pandemic, protests and elections, people purchased more than 23 million guns, a 66 percent increase over 2019 sales, according to a Post analysis of federal data on gun background checks.
Early numbers indicate a large slice of 2020 gun buyers — about a fifth — purchased their first-ever firearm.
That flood of new gun owners, plus a possible lack of in-person firearm-safety training because of coronavirus shutdowns, is a worrying combination for Cassandra Crifasi, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.
“All of these people who bought guns in the context of fear around the pandemic and the unrest and uprising in relation to the murder of George Floyd, what do they do with those guns now?” she said.
The past 14 months have presented “a perfect storm,” Crifasi said. Along with the mass influx of guns, the pandemic fueled a recession that overwhelmingly affected low-wage and minority workers and would keep Black women and men out of jobs longer than other Americans. Then a police officer killed Floyd in Minneapolis, leading to an erosion of public confidence in law enforcement. The protests after Floyd’s murder yielded more images of police brutality. An increase in violence was underway, but it continued to rise, experts noted, just as it did after police killings in Ferguson, Mo., and Chicago in 2014.
The pandemic and protests also thinned officer ranks, sickening them or sending them to manage unrest. Researcher and former U.S. district judge Paul Cassell has charted in some cities a decline in street and vehicle stops, termed “proactive policing.”
Through it all, young people were especially vulnerable, with activities that normally provide structure and support — in-person school, sports, social work and community-level violence-prevention programs — not operating.
During the pandemic’s first year, public mass shootings were largely absent from national headlines — until a pair of deadly rampages in March, roughly one week apart, in the Atlanta area and Boulder, Colo. This began a run of high-profile shootings, which account for a relatively small fraction of overall firearm deaths, that some have identified as a cluster, where one attack may prompt another.
But throughout 2020 and into 2021, there were soaring levels of shootings that killed or injured four or more people and didn’t get much widespread attention beyond the places they occurred.