More than 100,000 Californians have bought a gun in response to Covid-19 crisis, report finds

Abené Clayton in Richmond, California
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Patrick Fallon/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Patrick Fallon/Reuters

More than a hundred thousands Californians have bought a gun since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a new report has found, in a surge of gun sales that has experts worried about the risk of suicide and deadly instances of domestic violence.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that 110,000 people in California purchased a firearm in direct response to the coronavirus. About 47,000 of the buyers were first-time gun owners. Buyers cited concerns over civil unrest, economic downturns, and the release of thousands from state prisons.

The surge has prompted concern that the rise in the number of people with little to no previous firearm experience will increase the risk of unintentional injuries, especially when children and teenagers are in the home.

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“People are fearful of the unknowns with the election, protests, and Covid. But we need to talk about the risks associated with firearms being in the home,” said Brian Malte, executive director of Hope and Heal Fund, a gun violence prevention organization. “You can buy a firearm but that doesn’t mean you know how to handle it, which is critical.”

Experts also worry that a surge in ownership and gun purchases combined with hopelessness, fear and isolation due to the pandemic may lead to an increase in suicide deaths. Lead author Dr Nicole Kravtiz-Wirtz said she hoped that the statistics and implications laid out in the report can lead to a “mobilization for firearm injury prevention efforts”.

“We want to be proactive,” Kravitz-Wirtz told the Guardian. “We’ve seen prior spikes in gun sales following mass shootings and then upticks in firearm related death and injuries. We know enough from previous studies and evidence to know that we should uplift things like safe storage.”

Since March, the FBI has reported historically high numbers of firearm background checks going through its system. And according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, by August there were nearly 5 million first-time gun buyers across the US.

The UC Davis analysis is based on findings from the 2020 California Safety and Wellbeing Survey, conducted by researchers with the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center and Violence Prevention Research Program. It is the first to analyze people’s motivations for getting a firearm.

The two most common reasons for recent firearm acquisition, according to the report, was “lawlessness” and the early releases of people from California prisons.

The survey found that the fear of being attacked in one’s neighborhood was a prime driver of gun ownership among those who got a gun due to the pandemic and its fallout. Nearly 70% of respondents said they were most concerned about robbery, and 50% said their fears stemmed from police violence. Social upheaval and large-scale protests over police killings and racial violence have also fueled some of the fears survey-takers described.

The report also highlights changes in the ways people store their firearms and ammunition. Of the 110,000 Californians the survey focuses on, half have adopted “unsecure storage practice in response to the pandemic” such as keeping guns loaded and not locked in a safe.

“I’m concerned like I’ve never been before,” said Dr Rochelle Dicker, a UCLA trauma surgeon in response to the report. “Americans have a culture of turning to firearms for protection, and now like never before, people are fearing for their own safety and financial security. We’re seeing that manifested in California.”