As the world faces the COVID-19 public health emergency, America is still grappling with another public health crisis: gun violence.
Gun violence and the COVID-19 pandemic are inextricably linked. As Americans are asked to stay home, many might be in closer proximity to guns for longer periods of time. This is a concern because even under normal circumstances, guns do not make us safer. Guns do not make us more secure. Guns do not improve the health of the general public. In fact, guns in the home are more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting, a suicide attempt, or an assault than they are to be used for self-defense.
Indicators are showing that alcohol use has increased during this period of self-quarantine. According to a report by CRM software company Womply, liquor sales were up 178% nationwide during the week of March 16, 2020. Alcohol intoxication can decrease inhibitions, impair judgment, and lead to impulsive or violent behavior. Risky alcohol use increases the risk of suicide, and suicides are more likely to involve firearms when alcohol is involved. Alcohol use may intensify suicidal ideation by worsening mental health problems. Coupled with economic uncertainty, elevated stress, and potential interpersonal conflict, guns and alcohol are an especially dangerous combination.
Home is not a safe place for everyone — especially when guns and domestic violence are involved. For individuals who are quarantined with domestic abusers, guns in the home can result in an increase in injuries and fatalities. There are about 4.5 million women in America who have been threatened with a gun and nearly 1 million women who have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. The chance of being murdered by an abusive partner increases five-fold when there is a gun in the home. We must keep in mind how social distancing and self-isolating will affect Americans living with abusers.
Data indicates that African-American and Hispanic populations are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Just like gun violence, the structural inequities that impact these communities — poverty, lack of adequate mental and physical health care, underfunded public housing, inadequate schools, food deserts, and other factors will be exacerbated by COVID-19. It is imperative to invest in communities most impacted by gun violence with a racial equity lens. Moreover, lawmakers must address the structural inequities faced by communities, allocate funding for community-based intervention and prevention programs, and work to pass legislation that limits access to deadly weapons.
With children and teens home from daycare and school, the presence of guns in the home presents a real danger. Firearm ownership and access is associated with increased homicide, suicide, unintentional firearm deaths, and injuries among children and teens. For the safety, health, and wellbeing of children of all ages, parents should practice safer storage by storing firearms locked and unloaded, storing and locking ammunition separately from firearms, and ensuring the key or lock combination is inaccessible — or by removing guns from the home entirely.
Access to firearms is a risk factor for suicide; having a gun in the home increases the odds of suicide more than three-fold. In combination with the risk factors of increased isolation, economic uncertainty, hopelessness, distress, and despair, guns in the home create a dangerous situation. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence have released a new report entitled, “Firearm Suicide: Mitigating Risk During a Pandemic,” which outlines our four step solution to prevent firearm suicide. The following information and the full report can be found at PreventFirearmSuicide.com.
Lock Up Guns
Now more than ever, it is important to practice safer firearm storage. If a person chooses to store their firearm in the home, it is widely recommended to store firearms locked and unloaded, store and lock ammunition separately from firearms, and ensure the key or lock combination is inaccessible to the person at risk of suicide.
Telehealth Professionals: Ask About Guns
As patients turn to telehealth during COVID-19 for non-emergency procedures and appointments, it is important for healthcare professionals to ask about firearms access and engage in lethal means safety counseling for patients at an elevated risk of suicide, such as someone who is experiencing depression or engaging in risky alcohol use — especially if they have disclosed suicidal ideation or attempt.
The Role of Gun Shops
As many gun stores remain open, it is imperative that they have firearm suicide prevention educational materials prominently displayed and available for their customers.
Extreme Risk Laws
Extreme risk protection orders temporarily prohibit the purchase and possession of firearms and/or require the removal of firearms from persons at risk of suicide or other violence. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have extreme risk laws, and all but two (New Mexico and Virginia) are currently in effect. States and localities should provide explicit guidance on how to obtain an extreme risk protection order during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that they are accessible. Check in with local law enforcement and courts for further direction.