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Another way coronavirus will make Americans’ lives worse in the long term: More guns

America’s gun problem stands to get a little worse after all of this ends.

A worker restocks AR-15 guns in Orem, Utah, on March 20, 2020.
George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic is leading people to buy way, way more guns — and that will likely translate into more gun violence in the long term.

Based on newly released FBI data, March was a record month for background checks in the US. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) carried out roughly 3.7 million background checks in March — 12 percent higher than the previous record of 3.3 million in December 2015, Daniel Nass reported for the Trace.

This doesn’t tell us the exact number of gun sales, since background checks can be done for things that aren’t gun purchases (like permit applications), the checks can cover multiple gun purchases at once, and some gun purchases don’t involve a background check at all.

The firm Small Arm Analytics and Forecasting used the FBI data to estimate the actual number of gun sales in March. It concluded that March 2020 was a record month: There were nearly 2.6 million likely firearm sales, up 85.3 percent from March 2019. The firm attributed the spike in purchases to fears about Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

A chart of gun sales, by month. Small Arm Analytics and Forecasting

Typically, increases in gun sales follow mass shootings — as people fear for their own safety and about the prospects of new restrictions on firearms making them harder to acquire.

It remains unclear how the coronavirus and related measures are affecting gun violence right now. There are reports of more domestic violence as people stay in their homes. But there’s also a possibility that fewer people out in the streets will lead to fewer non-domestic shootings over time.

In the longer term, though, the massive increase in gun purchases will likely translate into more gun violence: The research consistently shows that where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.

The logic is straightforward: People all over the world, since the beginning of time, have gotten into arguments, feuds, and fights. When there’s a gun around, though, it’s simply much easier for those fights to escalate into deadly violence.

This is one of the primary reasons America, which has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world, has more gun deaths than any other developed nation. A 2018 study in JAMA found the US’s civilian gun death rate is nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan. Based on the research, the high rates of civilian gun ownership are a primary cause.

The fears around coronavirus, then, stand to make America’s gun problem even worse.

America’s gun problem, briefly explained

It comes down to two basic problems.

First, America has uniquely weak gun laws. Other developed nations at the very least require one or more background checks and almost always something more rigorous beyond that to get a gun, from specific training courses to rules for locking up firearms to more arduous licensing requirements to specific justifications, besides self-defense, for owning a gun.

In the US, even a background check isn’t an absolute requirement; the current federal law is riddled with loopholes and hampered by poor enforcement, so there are many ways around even a basic background check. And if a state enacts stricter measures than federal laws, someone can simply cross state lines to buy guns in a jurisdiction with looser rules. There are simply very few barriers, if any, to getting a gun in the US.

Second, the US has a ton of guns. It has far more than not just other developed nations but any other country, period. In 2017, the estimated number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 120.5 guns per 100 residents, meaning there were more firearms than people. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 52.8 guns per 100 residents, according to an analysis from the Small Arms Survey.

A chart showing civilian gun ownership rates by country. Small Arms Survey

Both of these factors come together to make it uniquely easy for someone with violent intent to find a firearm, and potentially carry out a shooting.

This is borne out in some statistics, which show America has far more gun violence than other developed nations. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data for 2012 compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are one reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than the rest of the developed world.)

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence. Javier Zarracina/Vox

If having so many guns around actually made the US safer, as the National Rifle Association and pro-gun politicians claim, America would have one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the world. But the statistics suggest that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Research compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center is also pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other types of crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also with suicides (which in recent years were around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy nations.

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations.

This is in many ways intuitive: People everywhere get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. Every country has extremists and other hateful individuals. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone who’s angry or hateful will be able to pull out a gun and kill someone, because there are so many guns around and few barriers to getting the weapons.

Researchers have found that stricter gun laws could help. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths. A growing body of evidence, from Johns Hopkins researchers, also supports laws that require a license to buy and own guns.

That doesn’t mean that bigots and extremists will never be able to carry out a shooting in places with stricter gun laws. Even the strictest gun laws can’t prevent every shooting.

Guns are also not the only contributor to violence. Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and the strength of criminal justice systems.

But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and again that America’s loose access to guns is a major reason the US fares so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed counterparts.

So America, with its lax gun control laws and abundance of firearms, makes it rather easy for people to commit gun violence.

And due to fears about coronavirus, more of these deadly weapons are out there now — likely setting the stage for more gun violence in the long term.

For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.