On March 11, President Joe Biden announced on live TV the purchase of 100 million more one-shot vaccines, and that every adult in the U.S. would be eligible to receive a vaccination by May 1—this, as shots in arms were already increasing, and COVID-19 rates steadily declining. Coupled with the emerging springtime around the nation, it felt like a turning point in our dark age: that the unremitting blues of quarantine might soon be replaced by reunions with loved ones, recreational travel, and the familiar summer joys of baseball games and backyard barbecues.
Five days after that promising primetime address, eight people were shot dead in Atlanta-area spas. A few days later, 10 were killed in a grocery store shooting in Boulder, Colorado. The country was forced to face familiar, albeit perhaps temporarily forgotten, territory: two mass shootings within a week, for the first time since the pandemic lockdown began.
The Atlanta attack was exactly a year to the day since the last mass shooting occurred, defined using the FBI’s metrics as a single shooting in which four or more people are killed. The span of the pandemic so far produced no such events, a true anomaly (though before the pandemic began, 2020 already had two). Before that, in 2019, there were 10; in 2018, 12; and in 2017, 11. Now, the happy anticipation of emerging from lockdown could be tempered by a return of such horrific incidents. Public spaces spell more opportunity for gun violence in crowds, and that, combined with a record number of gun sales and persistent economic woes exacerbated by the pandemic, creates a ripe climate for these very specific acts of violence.
If you consider the widely used alternative definition of a mass shooting, in which four people are shot but not necessarily killed, mass shootings did indeed continue during the pandemic, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In fact, 2020 was a record year for gun homicides, and homicides in general, with at least 4,000 additional murders than the number recorded in 2019. In total, about 41,000 people were killed by firearms in 2020. The bulk of the bloodshed occurred in urban areas (homicide rates skyrocketed across the country, including in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles), domestic attacks, accidental shootings, and suicides (which represent two-thirds of yearly gun deaths).
But the kind of mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder are the rare yet now seemingly routine high-profile events that capture the media’s 24-hour coverage. They account for only about 1% of total gun deaths, but there’s something in the indiscriminate cruelness and uniqueness to American identity that makes mass shootings so affecting, to the point that they become part of America’s national psyche.
“America is the only high-income country where getting back to normal means that shootings in public places resume,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, one of the country’s most prominent gun reform advocacy groups. From systemic disparities to the prevalence of firearms, America is simply going back to a broken normality with its unresolved problems, including the gun violence epidemic. “We’re getting back to baseline,” Watts says.
In an era of political do-nothingness on the issue of gun violence, mass shootings are still the biggest triggers of changes in gun laws. A Harvard Business School study showed that mass shootings have a “greater impact on legislative activity” than other gun crime. The authors found that one mass shooting has an equal impact on introducing gun bills in statehouses as 125 individual gun homicides. But the changes are not necessarily in favor of gun control: Republican-controlled legislatures were more likely to loosen gun laws in response to new atrocities.
A very particular kind of gun violence
There’s no certainty that the two recent shootings are the start of a trend. “I don’t think we’re doomed to a surge in mass shootings,” says Michael Anestis, a clinical psychologist and public health professor at Rutgers University, whose research centers on gun violence. By nature, mass shootings are more random, so they’re harder to predict than the kind of sustained gun violence that tends to peak in the summer. But, Anestis says, opportunities for mass shootings are increasing.
One of the risk factors is the surge in gun purchases, which reached an all-time record in 2020. FBI-reported background checks, the best metric available for gun sales, hit 39.7 million, a 40% increase over 2019, which held the previous record. That uptick has continued in early 2021. “You can’t have a mass shooting without ready access to firearms,” Anestis says. “Particularly those that can fire at a high rate, and have high-capacity magazines.”
You also can’t have mass shootings, by definition, without congregations of people. For some period of time, schools, places of worship, malls, clubs, and concert halls were closed, limiting the opportunity for gatherings, and thus the frequency of mass violence. As COVID-19 subsides, those assemblies we’ve been longing for will start to reappear.
Criminal justice professors James Densley and Jillian Peterson study this very particular kind of gun crime, running the Violence Project, a holistic study that collects data on motives, victims, and other facets of the crimes, dating back to 1966. Densley says the group had been optimistic about the break in mass shootings during the pandemic. That’s because one of the biggest fears is the “contagion effect,” whereby shooters are spurred on by copying previous mass shooters, as shown by historic clusters of such events. And as the media spotlights these crimes, they become part of the cultural conversation, as they have in the years since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999; since that notorious event, mass shootings have occurred consistently. (This is part of reason media outlets now deliberately choose not to focus attention on the shooter.)
A thread that runs through the motivation for many mass shootings is economic or social angst. That has manifested itself in school shooters who didn’t feel included among their peer group; gunmen who held grudges against employers or colleagues; and killers who scapegoated immigrants or ethnic minorities for their own economic troubles. One study, by criminologist Adam Lankford, suggests that the unique pressures of “American exceptionalism” form the root of this type of violence. “Crime and deviance occur when there’s an unhealthy gap between people’s dreams and aspirations and their ability to reach those dreams,” Lankford told Newsweek. “Our culture has people reaching for the stars and slipping and falling probably more often.”
This data is not, in any way, meant to mitigate the horrific acts these shooters have perpetrated. Yet it points to systemic problems and disparities deeply embedded in American society—in the best of times. “The reality is: We weren’t living our best selves before the pandemic,” Densley says. “America was not a happy, fully functioning place where everybody felt included, and where everybody was thriving. Going back to normal really just means going back to all the bad stuff that was there and never went away.”
A pause on life, and on an unresolved epidemic
The pandemic has inflamed economic anxieties, as the COVID-19 shutdown caused a spike in unemployment, which may account for some of 2020’s unprecedented violence. First-time buyers contributed to the record number of gun sales since the onset of the pandemic, indicating newfound social anxiety. Lockdown, with its close quarters, also may have amplified tensions and feelings of hopelessness. Finally being released from those constraints will be beneficial, but in order for the risk of violence to quell, Anestis says, it has to be accompanied by an improvement in those social determinants. Reopening will likely produce more economic opportunities, which will be a boon. He suggests policies such as raising the minimum wage can also help curb violence because they create more economic prospects.
As society reopens after an unprecedented time of hardship, Densley also recommends that people be more attuned to loved ones who are struggling, to ensure they get the resources they need, so that “they don’t feel that their only option is to lash out violently.” A priority on that front is children, who are returning to schools—the sites of some of the most horrendous mass shootings in memory—after a defining dark period in their early development. “We need to make sure that they get caught up on their math and English and social studies,” Densley says. “But at the same time, we also need to make sure, you know—how is everyone doing?”
Arguably the foremost opportunity for gun violence to occur in America is created by the guns themselves, an issue that was barely addressed even before the pandemic slammed the brakes on our lives. Watts’s group, Moms Demand Action, fights for gun reform legislation; absent federal action, the nonprofit has mostly had small victories on the state level, creating red-flag laws and closing loopholes for gun purchases. “This patchwork of gun laws is doing its best,” she says. “But we are all only as safe as the closest state with the weakest gun laws.”
Now, the focus is on convincing Republican senators to approve the two bills that have passed in the House: one that extends background checks to private sales, and another that closes the so-called Charleston loophole, which would extend the time a person must wait for a check to be completed before walking away with a gun. If that “cooling-off” period had been in place, it would have stopped the gunman in the Atlanta shooting from walking into a gun shop and buying a weapon on the very day of the murders.
There’s not much optimism on the bills’ front—even in the event of eliminating the filibuster. Nor would the proposed laws ban the semiautomatic weapons that the Atlanta and Boulder shooters used, an action Biden has called for but that seems improbable in a gridlocked Senate.
While we may not be doomed to more mass shootings, we’re coming out of a pandemic to return to no political action on a decades-long epidemic. Anestis offers a self-admittedly pessimistic perspective on gun reform that’s been suggested before, but one that’s fair given the persistent inertia. “It’s hard to ever come to the conclusion that something’s going to get across the finish line,” he says. “If Sandy Hook didn’t do it, what will?”