At a time when millions of Americans are following the advice of public health experts and sheltering in place to protect themselves and their neighbors, some officials continue to ignore existing public health data related to another grave threat to public safety: gun violence.
Since shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March, the overall crime rate and the rate of injury from automobile and pedestrian accidents have both decreased in cities throughout the U.S. But death and injury resulting from violence and accidents involving firearms has actually increased, due in part to people spending more time at home in proximity to weapons and in situations of magnified stress.
As a result, civic leaders have had to intensify strategies to protect communities from exposure to gun violence amid the pandemic.
It would make sense to limit access to firearms during this time of heightened anxiety. But instead, the federal government moved in the opposite direction, classifying gun stores, shooting ranges and weapons manufacturers as “essential services.” In March, almost 2 million guns were sold, a monthly surge almost as dramatic as the surge in January 2013 after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
This flood of firearms into the hands of fearful, depressed and angry Americans exacerbated the public health threat of gun violence at a time when resources for public health and safety are already stretched thin.
From a public health perspective, protecting the barely regulated right to purchase and possess firearms at this time is the equivalent of opening up storefronts where people can get injected with COVID-19 because they insist this is the only way they can protect themselves against the virus, even though health experts say it’s dangerous.
When elected officials and policymakers promote the myth that restricting access to firearms is the biggest threat to our personal security, access to firearms once again trumps scientific research, public health and safety.
In a nonbinding legal opinion in March, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote that, “State law provides several emergency powers to local governments to control movement within their region during a disaster…. However, local regulation of the sale, possession, and ownership of firearms is specifically prohibited under Texas law. Under our laws, every Texan retains their right to purchase and possess firearms.”
The truth is that under Texas law, there are some categories of Texans who do not qualify to purchase or possess firearms. If you are under 18, you are not entitled to purchase a firearm, but someone can give you one as a gift if your parent or guardian consents. After you turn 18, you can purchase and possess firearms, but you can’t get a license to carry (which requires four to six hours of classroom training, a written exam and a demonstration of proficiency) until you turn 21.
But these restrictions are not enough to limit the scourge of gun violence, described in the American Journal of Epidemiology as “an important public health problem that is characterized by an increased health-care burden, reduced quality of life, and increasing costs.”
To be sure, licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks, and if you don’t pass, you can’t purchase firearms. But sales conducted between individuals at gun shows, through private advertising or online can easily avoid the background check requirement. Moreover, the decision to obtain a license to carry is completely discretionary, so you don’t need any training whatsoever if you keep your firearm in your home or vehicle. And Texas is not the most permissive state when it comes to firearms. That distinction goes to at least a dozen other states including Arizona, Missouri and New Hampshire.
Insufficient regulations exacerbate the challenge of access to medical care amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The same government officials who limited access to health care services they determined as “non-essential” such as routine checkups, elective surgery and abortion in order to reduce the burden on the health care system have done nothing to reduce gun violence, even though gun violence places a far greater burden on our health care system than these so-called “non-essential” services.
What would a more comprehensive approach to gun violence look like?
March for Our Lives, the inspiring movement of young people created in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, has proposed an ongoing “Peace Plan for a Safer America.”
It calls for changing the standards of gun ownership, halving the rate of gun deaths in 10 years, holding the gun lobby and industry accountable for the death and injury they cause, naming a federal director of gun violence prevention, generating community-based solutions, and empowering the next generation to work for a future where the need to protect against gun violence is not the norm.
It is, at its core, a plan for public health written by and for a generation that has experienced the scourge of gun violence in their homes, their schools and their places of worship.
As a member of the clergy, I pray every day for the protection of human life from COVID-19. I pray just as fervently for the protection of human life from the toxic spread of gun violence. But faith alone cannot protect us.
The adherence of Americans to public health restrictions during the pandemic has been an encouraging sign of commitment to the good of our broader society. Now is the time to translate this concern for the public good into a vigorous and sustained response to our gun violence epidemic.