Gun sales in the United States have skyrocketed in response to the coronavirus, according to new data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. More than twice as many Americans underwent background checks for handgun purchases in March 2020 as had two months earlier. Online searches for the phrase “buy gun” spiked considerably in mid-March, too, according to Google Trends. The national run on guns has been fueled in part by rhetoric from the National Rifle Association: In late March, the organization released a video urging Americans to stock up on guns for personal safety. “I hope I survive the coronavirus,” said the woman in the video, Carletta Whiting, who was holding an assault-style weapon. “That’s up to God. What’s in my control is how I defend myself if things go from bad to worse.”
The FBI processed 3.7 million screenings in March, topping the prior all-time high by 12 percent.
Firearm sales also surged after the September 11 terrorist attacks and in response to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Yet research clearly shows that more guns do not keep people safer — they do the opposite. Having a gun in the home increases the chance for accidental injury, homicide, and suicide, all of which have been shown to outweigh the potential protective benefits of firearms.
A firearm might not actually help you stand watch over your family
It’s natural to worry about safety during a national emergency and to want to do everything possible to protect ourselves and our family members. The problem is that our perception of risk is typically skewed: We exaggerate certain kinds of risk and minimize others. Many Americans think that having a gun in the house will protect them, if, say, someone breaks in to attack or steal from them — yet violent break-ins are actually quite rare and have become steadily less common over the past 20 years. And when one occurs, having a gun is no safety guarantee.
Indeed, although the NRA and others argue that “good guys with guns” save lives, these kinds of incidents are the exception rather than the rule. This misperception stems largely from a study published in 1995 by criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, who asked 5,000 Americans if they, or other household members, had ever used their guns in the past year for self-defense. Based on the responses they received, the criminologists estimated that guns are used for self defense in the United States more than 2.5 million times a year. But other researchers argue that the survey was ambiguous and likely over-estimated defensive gun use; more recent studies have found that guns are only rarely used for self-defense. In 2015, David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and Sara Solnick, an economist at the University of Vermont, analyzed national government surveys involving more than 14,000 people and reported that guns are used for self-protection in less than 1 percent of all crimes that take place in the presence of a victim. They also found that people were more likely to be injured after threatening attackers with guns than they were if they had called the police or run away.
In a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, researchers found that having a gun in the home was linked with nearly three times higher odds that someone would be killed at home by a family member or intimate acquaintance. Studies using more recent data have come to the same conclusion. In a 2019 study, researchers found that states with high levels of household gun ownership have more domestic gun homicides than other states do. In fact, the quartile of states with the highest rates of gun ownership have 65 percent more domestic gun homicides than the quartile with the least, which is worrisome considering that domestic violence has worsened during the coronavirus outbreak.
Having a gun in the house makes grave accidents much more likely
It may seem obvious, but the evidence is compelling that any home that contains a gun is more likely to be the site of a firearm injury.
In a 2017 study published in Science, Philip Levine and his colleague Robin McKnight found that where gun sales increased after Sandy Hook (as indicated by increases in background checks), rates of accidental death rose, too. They estimated that 60 additional people, including 20 children, were killed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook because of the excess guns people purchased. “With everyone staying home, those new guns are more likely to fall into the hands of a child or other inexperienced user, with deadly consequences,” says Levine, an economist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
And gun accidents are likely to worsen in the current atmosphere. For one thing, Americans who become first-time gun owners during the pandemic may not have the option of taking in-person safety classes because of social distancing guidelines, which have shuttered most gun ranges. This is a problem because “we know that guns in the home increase the risk for gun injury,” says Cassandra Crifasi, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Fears over the coronavirus may incite Americans to make other choices, too, that worsen their risk for gun injury and death. Crifasi’s research has shown that when people are concerned about home defense, they are less likely to store their guns safely — in a locked cabinet or safe, ideally in a separate place from ammunition. (Gun owners who don’t take safety courses are also less likely to store their guns properly, she and her colleagues found.) Yet in homes where firearms are unsafely stored, family members are more likely to be hurt or killed by their guns.
The risk of self-injury is particularly high
The other big concern about guns right now is suicide. In a study published this June in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers followed more than 26 million adults in California for up to 12 years, keeping track of whether they purchased handguns and if they died by suicide. They found that men who had purchased handguns were then more than three times as likely to die by suicide — primarily gun suicide — compared with men who hadn’t bought handguns, and that women who’d purchased handguns were more than seven times as likely to die by suicide as women who hadn’t bought handguns. As the researchers concluded, “ready access to firearms, particularly handguns, is a major risk factor for suicide.”
Cathy Barber, a senior researcher at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center explains that “Gun owners aren’t more likely to be suicidal.” But when gun owners do become suicidal, “they’re more likely to die,” because suicide attempts using guns are far more fatal than attempts by other means. Plus, research suggests that, particularly among older people, experiencing a pandemic increases suicide risk by about one-third, because people feel disconnected, helpless, and worry that they have become a burden on their family members.
More guns in the home often means more guns out of the home, too — and more homicides overall
When gun owners are concerned about their safety, they may also bring their guns with them when they leave the house. “Leaving the house is a very different experience than it was before,” Crifasi notes. “I’d hypothesize that more people are carrying concealed when they go out in public — whether or not they have a permit.”
Yet research shows that concealed carrying puts people more, rather than less, at risk. “Any movements towards greater gun carrying – whether motivated by the coronavirus or legislative or judicial relaxation of restrictions on gun carrying – will come at the price of higher levels of violent crime,” says John Donohue, a law professor and economist at Stanford University. In a 2019 study, Donohue and his colleagues found that a decade after states passed “shall-issue” concealed carry laws, also known as right-to-carry laws, which make it easy for gun owners to get concealed carry permits, violent crime rates rose 13 to 15 percent higher than in states with more conservative “may issue” laws. In 2017, other researchers found shall-issue laws to be associated with higher homicide rates, particularly from handguns. And in a 2018 working paper, British economist Christoph Koenig and Dutch economist David Schindler reported that American states with the largest increases in gun sales after Newtown experienced 6 to 15 percent more murders over the course of the following year compared with other states.
Fear is a powerful motivator, and the impulse for self-protection is fierce among us all, right now. But impulses and feelings aren’t always borne out by science, and the research on guns points to one conclusion. The more guns we have, and the closer we keep them to us, the more danger we will be in during this pandemic.