The shootings have come at a relentless pace. Gun violence this year has cut through celebrations and funerals, places of work and houses of worship. It has taken lives at a grocery store and in a fast-food drive-through lane.
And most of all, it has unfolded on city streets and in family homes, away from the cameras and far from the national spotlight.
By almost every measure, 2021 has already been a terrible year for gun violence. And many fear it will get worse. Last weekend alone, more than 120 people died in shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, with three especially dangerous incidents in Austin, Texas; Chicago; and Savannah, Ga., killing two and injuring at least 30.
Through the first five months of 2021, gunfire killed more than 8,100 people in the United States, about 54 lives lost per day, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization. That’s 14 more deaths per day than the average toll during the same period of the previous six years.
This year, the number of casualties, along with the overall number of shootings that have killed or injured at least one person, exceeds those of the first five months of 2020, which finished as the deadliest year of gun violence in at least two decades.
Experts have attributed the increase to a variety of new and long-standing issues – including entrenched inequality, soaring gun ownership, and fraying relations between police and the communities they serve – all intensified during the coronavirus pandemic and widespread uprisings for racial justice. The violence, its causes and its solutions have sparked wide-ranging and fierce policy debates.
The Post’s analysis found an increase in shootings during summers, especially last year, echoing a trend that law enforcement officials and gun violence researchers have warned about for years. With the weather warming, school letting out and virus-related restrictions falling away, leaders are worrying about a deadlier season than usual.
“I’m scared to death of the summer, I’ll be real honest,” said Mark Bryant, the Gun Violence Archive’s founder. “I expect this to be a record year.”
Gunfire deaths began to rise in April 2020, when covid-19 shut down much of the country, in-person schooling was paused and more than 20 million people lost their jobs. Gun violence – like the coronavirus – takes an unequal toll on communities of color. So as the pandemic took hold, it was one crisis on top of another.
“What we have is compounded trauma,” said Shani Buggs, an assistant professor with the University of California at Davis’s Violence Prevention Research Program. “The pandemic exacerbated all of the inequities we had in our country – along racial lines, health lines, social lines, economic lines. All of the drivers of gun violence pre-pandemic were just worsened last year.”
In most places, violent-crime rates remain well below what they were in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period that gave way to “the great American crime decline.” But last year, in some of the country’s largest cities, homicides increased by a total of 30% when compared with 2019.
In July 2020, shooting deaths reached a peak of roughly 58 per day and continued, nearly unabated, around that level until early 2021.
Now, the numbers are rising again.
In the nation’s capital, 2020 set a recent record for homicides – mostly from gun violence – and their number is rising again, even with the annual summer crime prevention initiative well underway. Seventy-nine people were killed in the District of Columbia during the first five months of 2021, a 23% increase over the previous year.
At a recent vigil for Kassius-Kohn Glay, a 16-year-old standout high school student who was fatally shot last month, his parents said they were conscious of the danger their son, a young Black man, would face in his Northwest Washington neighborhood. Last year, Glay saw his best friend die in a shooting.
“I don’t want this to happen no more,” Glay’s mother, Juanita Culbreth, said at the memorial. “To the last breath of my body, I’m going to be sure. I’m going to keep on advocating for y’all.”
After a string of deadly shootings in Miami, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, went on national television to warn about the coming months.
“Unless we all start speaking up, speaking out and demanding our elected officials take action, we’re going to see a lot more bloodshed,” Acevedo, who also heads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
A week after Acevedo’s TV appearance, a shooting at a Miami graduation party killed three and wounded five.
Shootings have also increased in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to Columbus, Ohio. In Philadelphia, officials are preparing for what could be the deadliest year in the city’s history. The mayor is holding regular updates on gun violence, reminiscent of weekly coronavirus briefings.
But the rise in gun violence is not just a big-city phenomenon. The number of gunfire deaths has also increased in suburban and rural areas, though the overall numbers are lower because of smaller populations.
Researchers note a number of factors they say are driving the upswing, including the unprecedented surge in gun sales. In 2020, a year of pandemic, protests and elections, people purchased more than 23 million guns, a 66% increase over 2019 sales, according to a Post analysis of federal data on gun background checks.
In January and February of 2021, people bought more guns than they did during either month of any previous year in which such purchases were recorded. In January alone, about 2.5 million guns were sold, the third-highest one-month total, behind only June and July of 2020.
Before 2020, gun-sales spikes coincided with elections and mass shootings, such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in late 2012. Last year, the numbers climbed during pandemic-induced shutdowns and again in the summer, with millions protesting a Minneapolis police officer’s murder of George Floyd.
Controlling for population, the analysis found that the higher the jump in gun sales between 2019 and 2020, the higher the jump in gun violence that resulted in at least one death.
Michigan and Nevada were among the states with the largest per capita increase in gun sales and gun-related deaths, while Washington and Oklahoma saw their rates of gun violence stay relatively flat.
A large body of research shows that gun availability increases the relative risk of fatal shootings, and Buggs co-authored a study last year that found an association between firearm purchases that spring and a statistically significant increase in firearm violence. Early data indicates a large slice of 2020 gun buyers – about a fifth – purchased their first-ever firearm.
That flood of new gun owners, plus a possible lack of in-person firearm-safety training because of coronavirus shutdowns, is a worrying combination for Cassandra Crifasi, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.
“All of these people who bought guns in the context of fear around the pandemic and the unrest and uprising in relation to the murder of George Floyd, what do they do with those guns now?” she said.
The Post found that the number of fatal shootings the Gun Violence Archive classified as some type of accident increased by more than 40% from 2019 to 2020. The number of deadly incidents involving children – who may get guns from adults who do not store them properly – also rose by 45%, though a share of that is attributable to other types of shootings. Researchers have noted worrying signs that gun-related suicides, intimate-partner violence and family violence are also on the rise.
The past 14 months have presented “a perfect storm,” Crifasi said. Along with the mass influx of guns, the pandemic fueled a recession that overwhelmingly affected low-wage and minority workers and would keep Black women and men out of jobs longer than other Americans. Then a police officer killed Floyd in Minneapolis, leading to an erosion of public confidence in law enforcement. The protests after Floyd’s murder yielded more images of police brutality. An increase in violence was underway, but it continued to rise, experts noted, just as it did after police killings in Ferguson, Mo., and Chicago in 2014.
The pandemic and protests also thinned officer ranks, sickening them or sending them to manage unrest. Researcher and former U.S. district judge Paul Cassell has charted in some cities a decline in street and vehicle stops, termed “proactive policing.”
Through it all, young people were especially vulnerable, with activities that normally provide structure and support – in-person school, sports, social work and community-level violence-prevention programs – not operating.
California-based Advance Peace is one of those organizations.
Julius Thibodeaux Jr., the strategy program manager for the nonprofit’s Sacramento chapter, calls gun violence “the forgotten pandemic.” And the work he and his team do to fight it depends on human-to-human contact. It can’t be done remotely.
Before covid-19, Sacramento was on a 28-month run of no juvenile homicides. But the pandemic temporarily shuttered the program, which works with those most at risk of being involved in gun violence – as perpetrators or victims. The regular life-skills classes and one-on-one counseling were put on hold, outings to places such as Universal Studios and sports games were canceled, and just hanging out, having a conversation over a meal, became more difficult. All those interactions help build a foundation that prevents violence, Thibodeaux said.
“The pandemic really limited us in doing the very things that make the program successful,” he said. “I don’t think people know what it means to take a young person out of the environment where they’re impacted by trauma on a daily basis, to exhale, to take a look around and not feel threatened by their very environment.”
Thibodeaux has seen more anger in his city since the onset of the pandemic, more people looking to settle arguments with deadly weapons, more despair. Homicides in Sacramento rose by 26% from 2019 to 2020, and four young people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl, police reported.
It could have been worse, Thibodeaux said, if Advance Peace and groups like it hadn’t continued their work, even in a limited capacity. Advance Peace Sacramento says it mediated hundreds of conflicts that may have otherwise escalated. The group’s mentors prevented at least 84 “imminent gun violence conflicts” and responded to 83 shootings, stopping potential retaliation, according to a year-end report prepared by the University of California at Berkeley.
Advance Peace is starting to resume pre-pandemic operations, but many of the other problems linger, which is why experts expect the violence to continue.
During the pandemic’s first year, public mass shootings were largely absent from national headlines – until a pair of deadly rampages in March, roughly one week apart, in the Atlanta area and Boulder, Colo. This began a run of high-profile shootings, which account for a relatively small fraction of overall firearm deaths, that some have identified as a cluster, where one attack may prompt another.
But throughout 2020 and into 2021, there were soaring levels of shootings that killed or injured four or more people and didn’t get much widespread attention beyond the places they occurred.
This is happening amid growing calls to treat gun violence not only as a matter of law and order but as a public health concern.
Crifasi, of the Johns Hopkins center, has drawn a parallel to the opioid epidemic: Heroin wreaked havoc in Black communities for decades, giving rise to a “war on drugs.” But, she said, “as soon as opioids started impacting White communities, it was a public health crisis.”
“When we think about gun violence, it’s been ravaging Black and Brown communities for decades,” Crifasi said. “But it wasn’t until mass shootings started impacting predominantly White communities that people really started paying attention.”
There are signs that elected officials are increasingly embracing a public health approach, perhaps most notably in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which includes $5 billion over eight years to fund gun violence prevention programs. Negotiations with Senate Republicans over the proposal are stalled.
That legislation, along with the latest covid-19 stimulus package, which allows local governments to direct federal relief money to gun violence prevention, could have a far-reaching impact, said Buggs, the UC Davis professor.
“The federal government has never invested in community violence intervention and prevention in this way,” she said.
The funding could help cities and organizations address the mental health challenges that come with the violence, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of isolation – work Buggs said police officers cannot do.
“In communities where there is gun violence, there needs to be conversations about how can we stop this,” she said. “How can we address people’s anger and fear and pain in ways that lower the risk of individuals solving disputes and conflicts in fatal ways.”
In D.C., officials recently rolled out a program to distribute grants to people or groups involved in promoting public safety. And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced last month what he described as the largest-ever state investment in violence intervention and prevention, more than $200 million over three years.
This, Advance Peace’s Thibodeaux said, is a start.
“You can’t just say a prayer and throw pennies at this pandemic and expect it to go away,” he said. “It’s going to take more than prayer and pennies.”
About this story: Gun violence deaths and incidents based on data from the Gun Violence Archive. Post analysis on the Gun Violence Archive was limited to incidents with at least one death. Firearm sales estimates are based on methodology applied to FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System data surveying handgun, long-gun and multiple-gun background checks leading to purchases.