The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Spike in violent crime follows rise in gun-buying amid social upheaval

Two studies examine a surge in gun sales during the pandemic and after protests broke out following the killing of George Floyd

Firearm sales surged during the first half of the year. (Seth Perlman/AP)
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Americans purchased millions more guns than usual this spring, spurred in large part by racial animosity stoked by widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as anxiety over the effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

That gun-buying binge is associated with a significant increase in gun violence across the United States.

Those are the conclusions of two studies by the Brookings Institution and the University of California at Davis, respectively. Together, they paint a portrait of a society arming itself against social upheaval during a time of institutional failure.

The Brookings study, after examining federal background check data, estimated an additional 3 million firearms were sold from March through June, compared with the same period in previous years. That’s roughly equivalent to the spike in gun purchases observed following the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting and more than 50 percent higher than would have been expected for June sales.

Nearly half of those 3 million additional sales happened in June, after several days of protests sparked by Floyd’s killing in police custody. Researchers Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight of Wellesley College wrote that the spike differed from previous gun-buying binges because it was not driven by fear of pending restrictions but rather by anxiety and unease over the ongoing crises.

“In March, concerns about personal safety arose from both a deadly new virus and an economy in free fall,” they write. “By June, concerns about the virus and the economy remained, and were compounded by new evidence of racial injustice in policing, widespread protests, and discussions of defunding the police.”

The 2020 gun surge is different in at least one other respect: Purchases have been higher in states with greater levels of racial animus. Levine and McKnight approximated state-level racism using data on Google searches for the n-word, an approach used by social scientists in the past.

“We find that states where individuals are more likely to search for racial epithets experienced larger increases in June firearm sales,” they wrote, “even after adjusting for the personal security concerns that likely generated the March spikes in gun sales.” This is a new development: Running the same analysis on previous spikes in gun-buying yielded no correlation between racial animus and purchasing behavior.

They conclude their analysis on an ominous note: “In a society fraught with racial tension, it is not clear that dismantling the police and seeing more private citizens purchase guns will lead to a safer world.”

That question is directly addressed in the second paper, by a team from the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center. Led by Julia Schleimer, the team similarly found a massive increase in gun-buying during the first half of the year. They then focused on the question of whether, at the state level, those purchases are linked to an increase in gun violence.

To do that, they turned to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that maintains a real-time database of shootings by scouring news reports, police reports and public records. The analysis attempts to correct for a number of other factors that would plausibly affect rates of gun violence, such as covid-19 cases and deaths, the presence of stay-at-home orders, social distancing adherence, demographic factors and even temperature and precipitation.

In the end, they estimated, firearm violence nationally jumped nearly 8 percent from March through May because of excess gun-buying; that’s “776 additional injuries associated with purchasing spikes.” That may be an undercount: The Brookings study indicated gun sales jumped even higher in June, with potentially even greater effects on rates of gun violence.

The authors caution that a study of this nature cannot prove causality, particularly at a time of massive social upheaval in a country dealing with an unprecedented public health crisis as well as a nationwide protest movement.

“The risks of increased firearm availability are likely compounded by the myriad effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including widespread increases in anxiety, fear, grief, economic strain, disruptions to daily routines, and racial and economic inequities,” the authors write.

Still, they note, they accounted for as many confounding factors as possible and contend their finding is in line with a number of previous studies on the consequences of prior gun-buying binges.

Taken together, the findings paint a particularly bleak picture of the United States in 2020. Reeling from a pandemic, an economic downturn and a national reckoning with racism and police brutality, many Americans are choosing to arm themselves in the hope, perhaps, of protecting themselves in the event that circumstances get worse.

The research suggests that at least some of the spike in gun purchases is driven by racist beliefs and attitudes among white Americans.

And while many new gun buyers are motivated by wanting to secure their safety, the research also suggests that every gun purchased is a step toward a more violent society.