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The pandemic and gun violence created a ‘perfect storm of tragedy’

June 25, 2021, 1:51 PM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on gun violence in the United States. Homicides and unintentional shootings increased to record levels in 2020, taking more than 19,000 lives, a 25% increase from 2019.

The isolation and economic turmoil many Americans felt during the pandemic, coupled with a significant increase in gun sales in 2020, came together to intensify the gun epidemic already plaguing this country to levels unseen in the past two decades

“COVID just exacerbated and worsened a public health crisis that has existed in America for years,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen digital summit on Thursday. “These two things really combined to create the perfect storm of tragedy. I think we will be dealing with the repercussions of gun violence exacerbated by COVID, much longer than we will COVID itself.”

The impacts of both COVID-19 and the increase in gun violence were not evenly felt among Americans either. Black Americans were almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans and are nearly 10 times more likely than white people to die by firearm homicide. 

“It’s so important to remember that mass shootings and school shootings are about 1% of all the gun violence in this country,” said Watts. The overwhelming majority of gun deaths in the United States are by suicide and homicide. The isolation, economic despair, and lack of access to mental health services during the pandemic could be responsible for a 20% to 30% increase in the number of lives lost to firearm suicide in the U.S. in 2020, according to research by Everytown USA. The gun-safety organization believes that those numbers will remain elevated as the continued repercussions of the pandemic play out over the next two to three years. 

Domestic violence also spiked while Americans were stuck in their homes, under lockdown orders. Data from over 40 states shows that nearly half of domestic-violence service providers surveyed saw an increase in gun threats toward survivors of intimate violence. 

But Watts said she remains hopeful about limiting gun violence in the United States. 

“We know what the solutions are: a background check on every gun sale, funding community violence interruption programs, and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers,” she said. “These are really important solutions that we have been working on in statehouses and in boardrooms and city councils.”

Watts said she was inspired by the significant policy changes she’s seen since founding Moms Demand Action a decade ago. Legislation has passed to require background checks to purchase a gun in 21 states and to disarm domestic abusers in 29 states. The Charleston Loophole, a federal law that allows for gun sales without a background check after three days, has been closed in 19 states, and red flag laws have passed in 19 states. 

Moms Demand Action and Everytown USA have also successfully rallied for corporate action against current gun policy. With their help, 145 business leaders from companies like Airbnb, Twitter, Uber, Lyft, and Yelp have urged the U.S. Senate to take action on gun-safety regulation. 

Still, the Senate has not passed a piece of legislation that gun-safety activists say is essential in the fight to end gun violence. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, which requires background checks before all gun purchases, in March. 

Senators were negotiating a bipartisan agreement around the act, but talks have stalled. “It’s just a hard issue where the country is so divided,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas this month. The vast majority of Americans support universal background checks on gun sales. 

“We haven’t been able to get to a bill that would meaningfully increase the number of gun sales that require background checks,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said in a statement. “The good news is that I’m still talking with other Republican colleagues about different proposals to expand background checks, and I’m committed to getting something done.”

Student activists, meanwhile, are working to put a human face to the violence by meeting with legislators, said Jeannie She and Ade Osadolor, two teenagers who are national advisory board members for Students Demand Action and spoke at the Fortune summit with Watts. 

“The youth are unique in this movement because they have the power to humanize the statistics that are often discussed when talking to legislators,” said She. “Students can sit down with legislators and discuss the very real fear that we experience, going to school each day fearing for our lives. Humanizing the crisis is what will really influence our government to take the action that is incredibly overdue.”

And if these politicians don’t listen, added Osadolor, they’ll elect people who will. Students Demand Action, a grass-roots arm of Everytown, registered over 100,000 active voters ahead of the 2020 general election. Nearly 100 volunteers and gun violence survivors associated with Moms Demand Action ran for office on their own, 43 of whom won. 

“That’s a pretty amazing win rate,” said Watts.

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