As Americans struggle with fear and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new disturbing trend has emerged: an increase in purchasing of guns and ammunition. Some gun dealers and online retailers have reported an uptick in sales, and stories abound of individuals motivated to buy their first gun in response to this pandemic.
But in a time of crisis, it is crucial to resist the impulse to make decisions driven by fear and anxiety. The threat posed by the new coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is not the only relevant public health crisis to consider when deciding whether to buy a gun. Gun violence is already an urgent public health emergency in this country that takes the lives of nearly 40,000 people annually. Putting more guns in more hands is certain to exacerbate that problem.
When it comes to making the decision of whether to buy a gun—especially in a time of increased uncertainty and anxiety—individuals, families, and communities would be well-served to ensure that this choice is guided by data and research.
Below are four data-informed reasons to think twice before buying a gun during the coronavirus crisis:
1. A gun is more likely to be stolen than used in self-defense
Although guns are often promoted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and members of the gun industry as a necessary tool for self-defense, the available data suggest that defensive gun use is actually relatively rare. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) demonstrate that from 2010 to 2018, individuals used guns defensively in less than 0.5 percent of all criminal incidents. Research also finds that using a gun in self-defense is no more effective than taking other types of defensive actions in stopping or minimizing the impact of a crime, such as using other weapons or calling for help.
However, while guns are infrequently used in self-defense, they are routinely stolen. Data from the NCVS show that from 2010 to 2018, victims reported close to 1.4 million incidents of gun theft. Guns are therefore twice as likely to be stolen than they are to be used for self-defensive purposes.
This is not a minor concern. Stolen guns create a significant risk to public safety in American communities: Once they are stolen, they are often illegally trafficked and used in the commission of violent crimes. A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress estimated that from 2012 to 2017, more than 1.8 million guns were stolen in the United States.
2. Unsecured guns in the home create risks of unintentional shootings by children
An estimated 4.6 million children in the United States live in homes where guns are unsecured—meaning they are not locked with a secure locking device or in a gun safe. And while many parents think their young children do not know that there are guns in the home or where they are stored, far too often children do in fact know how to gain access to these guns. One study that separately interviewed parents and their children found that while 39 percent of parents thought that their children did not know where their guns were stored, 73 percent of children under the age of 10 actually knew the storage location, contradicting their parents’ perceptions.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, from 2015 to 2019, there were more than 1,600 unintentional shootings by children under the age of 18, which resulted in more than 600 deaths and 1,000 gun-related injuries. Most of the victims of these unintentional shootings were also minors, and most of these shootings occurred in a home, raising increased concerns as schools across the country close and children are spending more time at home.
Firearm safe storage resources:
3. Guns are the most lethal means of suicide attempts
Social distancing or isolation is the key public health response to slow down the spread of COVID-19, helping to avoid a spike in cases that overwhelms the health care system. However, social isolation can also exacerbate the risk factors for suicide, including feelings of anxiety, despair, and helplessness. Adding guns into that equation heightens the risk of fatal self-harm.
Gun suicides account for two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States, and guns are the most lethal means by which suicide is attempted. The use of a gun in a suicide attempt ends in death 85 percent of the time, compared with a 3 percent death rate when other means are used. The deadly role of guns in suicide attempts is compounded by the fact that 90 percent of people who survive an attempt to end their lives do not go on to die by suicide—and 70 percent of suicide survivors never attempt to end their lives again.
Suicide prevention resources:
4. Guns in the home increase risks to victims of domestic and family violence
For victims of domestic and family violence, the need to remain at home and practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 can heighten the risks of serious injury or death. Advocates for domestic violence survivors have warned that this isolation may exacerbate domestic violence. For example, abusive partners may prevent survivors from seeking medical care, further isolate survivors from their support systems, or intensify their physical abuse and disrupt strategies that survivors have developed to keep themselves safe. Unfortunately, these fears are being borne out. In China, the first country to experience a COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a surge in domestic violence, with calls to police stations more than tripling in one county. And the risks of this isolation are particularly acute for individuals with disabilities, who are more likely to experience intimate partner or family violence than those without disabilities and also face abuse from caregivers.
The presence of a gun in households with a history of domestic violence can drastically increase the risks to survivors. Guns are often used by domestic abusers as a tool of threats, intimidation, and physical harm. When a gun is brought into a home experiencing domestic violence, a woman is five times more likely to be killed than if a gun were not available. Data from the FBI indicate that 1 in every 2 women murdered in the United States is killed by an intimate partner and half of those murders are committed with a gun.* Guns are also frequently used by abusers to inflict nonfatal harm: In the United States, an estimated 4.5 million women have been threatened with a gun by an abusive partner.
Domestic violence resources:
Disability rights resources:
The bottom line is that the decision to purchase a gun should be made deliberatively, informed by all of the available data and research. The question of whether bringing a gun into a home is a safe and appropriate choice for a household involves a much more nuanced analysis than what is generally offered by organizations, such as the NRA, that purport to represent the interests of gun owners. And this decision is even more difficult during this period of unprecedented fear and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic, when nearly every aspect of our lives has been thrown into chaos. But regardless of what choice is ultimately made, it is crucial for all guns to be stored securely in order to prevent against theft and unauthorized access, especially by children and individuals who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Chelsea Parsons is the vice president of Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress. Eugenio Weigend is the associate director for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center. Rukmani Bhatia is a senior policy analyst for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center.
The authors wish to thank CAP’s Women’s Initiative, Disability Justice Initiative, and Health Policy team for their contributions to this column.
*Authors’ note: Data used only include homicides where there is one aggressor and one victim.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.