In the year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, gun violence has skyrocketed across the U.S., even with nationwide lockdown procedures, social distancing mandates and attempts to limit interactions between individuals.
Now, cities and states across the country are beginning to lift their COVID-19 restrictions amid vaccine rollouts and cases dropping. Summer weather is approaching, and more and more people are outside—in many cases, having to relearn social behaviors and co-exist in public spaces amid a time of heightened tension, divisions and incendiary political rhetoric. And with gun violence typically increasing in the summer months, experts are raising concerns that the season will see a further rise in shootings and gun crimes.
“We’re fearful of what this summer is going to look like,” Paul Carrillo, Community Violence Initiative Director at the Giffords Law Center tells TIME. “I’m fearful that people are still going to be carrying some of the anger and despair that we’ve all dealt with this past year.”
Carrillo, who has been worked in the violence interruption field for over a decade, cites the potential for volatile situations to escalate rapidly as Americans begin to re-socialize and come into contact with each other. This could be the case in particular for young people, he tells TIME, for whom conflicts aired over social media or through intermediaries could easily become dangerous in face-to-face environments. (This example fits into the broader context of endemic gun violence, as opposed to larger-scale mass shootings, though the latter category has also been on the rise in recent months.)
2020 was one of the worst years for gun violence on record in America. That surge hasn’t slowed down in 2021. More than 8,200 people—a number that represents those who have been victims of homicides and unintentional shootings—have been killed this year as of June 3, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA). Last year, that total number of fatalities was 19,402; in 2019, it was 15,447.
And in the first three months of 2021, the homicide rate in many larger cities increased by over 20% compared to the same time period last year, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ). Gun assault rates also increased by 22%.
Over Memorial Day weekend, traditionally seen as the beginning of the summer months, a mass shooting in Miami outside a banquet hall left two people dead and 23 people shot; video of the incident shows a crowd of people waiting outside of the venue as three men got out of a vehicle with weapons and open fire. No arrests have been made. In New York City, there were nine shooting incidents on Memorial Day itself—with 12 people were reportedly shot over a six-hour period. In Philadelphia, 16 people were shot over the holiday weekend. There were multiple shooting incidents reported in Houston and Dallas.
Overall there were more than 100 shooting victims across the country during the long holiday weekend. That grim figure is not an outlier by any means, but the latest tally in a consistent trend of deadly weekends—and weekdays—across the U.S.
Experts have pointed to a variety of factors for the recent increase in gun violence, including the pandemic’s socio-economic impacts, tensions that have flared between minority communities and the police as well as a rise in firearm purchases—though this increase has been more so attributed to those who were already gun owners than new buyers. These trends have ramifications at both the national and local levels and are not easily resolved.
“Economic stress is always an important factor in violence, and the pandemic produced tremendous stress,” Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University says of the COVID-induced financial hardships many Americans now struggle with. “We haven’t gotten out of the economic consequences of the pandemic yet.”
Specific to urban communities that often struggle with daily gun violence, activists are also concerned that many summer youth programs will be functioning with limited resources this year—if they’re open at all. This will mean less support for vulnerable communities at a time when it is sorely needed, and for the most vulnerable members thereof also.
Unfortunately, it’s often at-risk youth in marginalized neighborhoods who are enticed by gangs and fall into violent behavior patterns. “The kids that need the most services are the first ones to get kicked out,” Carrillo says—a problem set to be exacerbated in the coming months. “There are too many people that want to push youth programs, which is great and needed, but not many people specialize in the hard to reach kids.”
On April 7, President Biden announced a new drive to combat gun violence, calling the problem a “public health epidemic.” Along with committing to curb gun trafficking and address some loopholes in gun laws, the administration also promised to invest in community-based violence intervention initiatives. This is something activists have long called for, particularly the implementation of programs using credible street and outreach workers to quell conflicts between gangs.
But with bills on gun reform stuck in Congress, it is most likely, at least for now, that Americans will bear both the brunt of continued, devastating violence, and the work needed to prevent or curtail it.
Despite his fears, Carrillo still hopes for a summer in which Americans can find moments to relax and recuperate. “I hope that people feel a sense of relief from the pandemic and the worrying, and the uncertainty and the illnesses and everything that came with it,” he says. “I hope that [people] just kind of exhale, and just chill out.”
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