On February 12, 2018 I stood, trying to conceal the fact that I was nervously shaking, in the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein. After flying to Washington D.C. to endure a long week of policy workshops and sleepless nights dedicated to speech writing, I finally stood with a group of my peers, ready to lobby the United States Senator from California in support of greater gun control legislation.
As I read our carefully crafted speech, I felt empowered. And I left the capital feeling like maybe my small act could make a difference.
I flew home the next morning and a day later, on February 14, 2018, 17 young adults lost their lives in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
It was shocking. I had thought I could use my voice to incite change regarding this issue. Now, only two days later, 17 more kids exactly like me, high school students filled with optimism for the future, had lost their lives to a senseless act of gun violence.
The epidemic of gun violence is no secret to the community of Isla Vista, as four years prior, the Isla Vista tragedy left an enormous mark on our college town. The United States has had 57 times as many school shootings as other industrial nations combined and in 2017, had the 28th highest rate of death from gun violence in the world. American students of all ages live in rational fear of gun violence, and yet very little has changed to protect them.
March 2020 was the first March in nearly two decades without a school shooting in the United States, not because of groundbreaking gun control legislation, but assumedly because of campus closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Simply shutting down schools seems to be the only way to prevent further shootings, as government regulation of firearms has been historically inefficient in the United States.
However, while the rate of mass public shootings have fallen, the pandemic has brought on its own host of gun-related problems. Recent state-wide lockdowns have required the closure of all nonessential businesses. Those businesses that are allowed to stay open provide essential items such as groceries, gasoline and medical care. Recently, businesses that sell firearms have manipulated their way onto that list.
Many states originally ordered firearms businesses to close but immediately reversed their initial orders after being slapped with multiple lawsuits by gun rights advocates. The threat of widespread litigation combined with intense lobbying by gun-industry groups led the federal government to officially advise states to categorize gun stores, gun manufacturers, and shooting ranges as critical businesses allowed to remain open during the stay-at-home order.
For those of you who, like me, have been fighting for safer schools and communities since school shootings became a terrifying reality, I hope the implications of this pandemic will reignite your fight.
However, allowing firearm businesses to remain open has only exacerbated an environment of fear-mongering and violence during an already stressful time.
In the midst of pandemic panic, firearm and ammunition sales have skyrocketed. Over the past few weeks, long lines of customers could even be seen stretching out of the doors of some Los Angeles gun stores. Store owners are attributing this 30 to 40% spike in sales entirely to the virus scare and are now typically selling as many as 300 firearms a week.
But guns will not make Americans any safer in the face of COVID-19. In fact, these panic-fueled purchases are just inciting more violence.
While overall crime has declined due to the pandemic, gun violence has not. Gun violence has disproportionately impacted communities of color due to historic racism surrounding housing, education and employment. These are now some of the communities hit hardest by the coronavirus, creating an feasible environment for responsive gun violence to occur.
In Chicago, the police department has reported a double-digit increase in gun incidents compared to this time last year. Similarly, Philadelphia is seeing a 17% increase in homicide shootings compared to last year. Many city leaders fear that, with increased possession of firearms and ammunition, the number of shootings may only increase further once lockdowns are lifted.
Accidental shootings due to new possession of firearms are also on the rise. In Albuquerque, a man was arrested for accidentally shooting and killing his 13-year-old cousin. He told detectives that he was arming himself for protection amidst the coronavirus scare and hadn’t realized that his shotgun was loaded.
Additionally, this influx in gun sales may be contributing to a decline in home safety. In Houston, domestic violence calls have increased by 6% during the month of March and were up by 21% percent in Phoenix. This trend is reverberating throughout the nation, as at least 142 American cities and counties in 48 states are reporting significant spikes in calls to domestic violence hotlines.
Stay-at-home orders are proving to be a danger for domestic violence victims, which is only exacerbated by the presence of a gun in the home. In Pennsylvania, a man reportedly shot his girlfriend and then himself after losing his job due to the pandemic. Incidents like these, in which family members are the target of gun violence, are becoming increasingly common.
In many ways, firearms have become a symbol of apocalyptic panic in this pandemic. Gun-toting protesters have flocked to state legislatures, in clear defiance of stay-at-home orders. It didn’t take long for pictures of these angry demonstrators armed with assault rifles and screaming at politicians in bulletproof vests to circulate through social media.
Allowing firearm businesses to remain open during this already high-strung period has ultimately produced more panic and fueled more violence than what previously existed. The fact that Americans believe that buying guns is a logical form of protection from this pandemic clearly indicates the growth of this mass hysteria.
This increase in violence, if anything, should highlight the importance of gun control legislation. Now, exactly six years since the Isla Vista tragedy sparked activism in our own Santa Barbara community, gun violence remains as prevalent an issue as ever. For those of you who, like me, have been fighting for safer schools and communities since school shootings became a terrifying reality, I hope the implications of this pandemic will reignite your fight.
Emily Kocis rejects the labeling of firearms businesses as essential and pushes for greater gun control legislation.