And the answer, at least according to the researchers that NPR reporter Martin Kaste spoke to, appears to be “probably not, maybe a little, but we really don’t know.”
Gun control activists, on the other hand, are certainly making the argument that the primary driver for the rise in shootings and homicides in most cities last year was the result of record-high gun sales; and their solution, of course, is putting more gun control laws on the books. As Kaste learned, however, it’s far more complicated than that.
“It’s a real challenge to try and disentangle the role of any one single potential cause,” says Julia Schleimer, with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. “It’s particularly challenging during the pandemic,” with variables such as mass unemployment and closed schools.
Nevertheless, Schleimer and her colleagues are trying to parse out the effect of all those new guns. Their study of the initial boom in purchases — an estimated 2.1 million extra sales from March to May — concluded there was an association between short-term surges in sales and shootings.
But as the year progressed, Schleimer says that statistical relationship faded.
“We know that there’s a strong link between more guns and more gun violence,” she says, “but during this pandemic and in our analysis here, that link is less clear.”
With all due respect for Schleimer, we actually don’t know that there’s a link between more guns and more gun violence. In fact, until 2020 violent crime had been steadily declining across the United States for more than two decades, even as gun sales steadily increased and millions of Americans embraced gun ownership and their right to carry.
But the University of Denver’s Trent Steidley, who studies the sociology of firearms in America, says it’s too early to conclude that the increase in the overall supply of legal guns last year led to more guns used in crimes — especially when you look at the last decade.
“We’ve sold a lot of guns since 2008. And year-over-year, until 2020, we saw crime rates declining,” he says. “I don’t think 2020 is going to settle this.”
Full disclosure here; Kaste spoke to me for his story, and I’m quoted in the piece talking about the increase in new gun owners. We also spoke about the rise in violent crime, though that didn’t end up in his finished story.
My take is that the biggest reason for the increase in violent crime was the fact that the criminal justice system nearly ground to a halt in many cities. Not only did you have jails being depopulated and police forces told not to enforce low-level arrests in places like Philadelphia, but court systems were closed for months on end in many cities. We also saw a pullback in policing in many places after the riots sparked by the death of George Floyd, which I believe further emboldened criminals.
For gun control activists, the argument is simple: gun sales increased last year, and so did violent crime. Therefore, violent crime must have increased because of more guns.
The truth is more complicated, but if I were to dumb it down and make as simplistic an argument as anti-gun advocates, I’d say the opposite is actually the case. Violent crime increased last year, and so did gun sales. Therefore, gun sales must have increased because of violent crime.
According to surveys of new gun owners, self-defense was the primary motivation behind a majority of gun purchases. As violent crime increased during 2020 and most governmental officials did little to address the problem beyond holding press conferences and vowing to “do something,” millions of Americans decided that they were going to do something too; purchase a gun in case they became a victim of a carjacking, home invasion, or robbery.
If the increased number of firearms in private hands was truly the cause of the crime spike last year, we would have seen that in pre-COVID data as well. Gun sales soared last year, but they’ve been strong for nearly a decade without any correlating rise in violent crime. The increase in new gun owners isn’t to blame for the increase in violent crime, and more gun control laws aren’t the way to turn those numbers around.
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