Recent news stories reported sharp increases in firearm purchases during 2020, coinciding with the spread of COVID 19 and racial injustice unrest.
In June 2020, the FBI reported a record 3.9 million background checks, up from 3.7 million in March 2020. Some theorized the polarization of politics also contributed to increases in gun ownership.
But the common belief that gun ownership is indicative of fear is not borne out in research. The palliative perspective is a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between gun ownership and fear, suggesting that gun ownership mitigates fear, meaning people avoid feelings of fear by obtaining firearms.
Unfortunately, the data tells a different story about risk and gun ownership. Gun ownership does not reduce risk. Fundamentally owning a firearm increases the risk of injury or death.
Research on firearm ownership has established a powerful link between firearm ownership and suicide. The inverse is also true — states with less firearm ownership have lower firearm suicide rates.
Youth are at increased risk for firearm suicide when firearms are present at home. Guns in the home increase the risk of homicide for women.
The increase in domestic violence during COVID has highlighted the dangers of increased gun ownership during the pandemic. And because many children and youth are at home and not in school due to COVID, The combination of increased firearm ownership, physical distancing necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, loss of in-person support services and communities of support and feelings of loss of control brought on by racial unrest and political uncertainty may put some members of our communities at increased risk. The increase in gun ownership compounds that risk.
As a public health professional working to reduce suicide and domestic violence, I am often asked what can be done about these increased risks in our current environment.
Specifically, people ask how families can reduce their exposure to gun-related injuries and deaths during these high-risk times? There are specific gun-related actions to take and some more general mental health-enhancing practices to undertake, even in the current environment.
The most important action to combat gun violence in homes is for gun owners to practice safe storage. All firearms should be stored locked and unloaded in a secure location such as a gun safe or lockbox for safety.
Access to lock combinations/keys should be closely guarded. Some families take this one step further by securing their firearms with dual locks with keys held by different household members or split combinations so that two persons are needed to access firearms. Ammunition should be stored separately in a locked container, again with access to lock combinations/keys closely guarded.
More generally, there are evidence-based practices to protect and monitor mental health during these trying times, helping reduce the risk of suicide and domestic violence.
Staying connected with family, friends and supportive communities virtually through –video chats, virtual gatherings and support group meetings are important. Not only can connect with others promote feelings of hope and belonging, but they can help monitor how others who may be at risk for violence are doing. This can alert the necessary parties to the need for assistance.
Helping others can help the individual and promote good mental health. This can be done while maintaining physical distancing. For example, dropping off care packages, running errands for those at high risk for COVID complications, or simply calling someone you know is struggling.
Individuals can also acknowledge and celebrate positive events and practice gratitude. Gratitude can boost mental health and increase feelings of well-being and hope.
Limiting alcohol and other recreational drug intakes can also mitigate gun violence risk. Alcohol and other drugs can impair judgment, which may lead to violent behaviors. The increased presence of guns can make that violence all the more deadly.
For those at risk of domestic violence victimization, abstaining from alcohol and drug use is especially important as gun violence victimization is associated with alcohol and drug intake.
Seek mental health assistance if you or a household member is in need. In response to COVID, an increasing number of healthcare providers are utilizing telemedicine or video sessions. Many insurers are making adjustments and covering these services during this time.
This mix of safe gun storage practices, plus emotional and mental health self-care, can protect against the heightened threat of gun violence brought on by the increased presence of guns in households.
Maryann Mason, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Director of Injury and Violence Research at the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project and has been working in public health for over 20 years.