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23 March 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:47am

Why the US’s pandemic of gun violence is only getting worse

Despite two mass shootings in a week, the strength of the American gun lobby means there is little prospect of change.   

By Emily Tamkin

There have been two mass shootings in less than a week in the United States. Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in Atlanta on 16 March. Ten people, including one police officer, were killed in a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado yesterday afternoon.

In a certain sense, this marks a return to Americans’ pre-pandemic life. Mass shootings in public places were less common during the pandemic. In 2018, there were ten shootings in which four or more people were killed in public settings; in 2019, there were nine. The tragedy in Atlanta was, according to the Violence Project, the first mass shooting in a public place in a year.

The political context is familiar too. The National Rifle Association, which lobbies for gun rights, tweeted on 22 March, as the tragedy was unfolding, the text of the second amendment of the bill of rights: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” A shooter in a supermarket is not a militia, and there is nothing particularly well-regulated about guns in the US, but the implication was clear: the NRA would work to stop stricter gun control, as it has countless times before. On 16 March, the NRA tweeted that it had cause for celebration: a judge ruled that a city’s ban on AR-15 rifles was pre-empted by state law and struck it down. That city was Boulder, Colorado. The irony is cold and cruel.

Not much has changed on the Democratic side either; Joe Biden’s White House is still considering the executive action it can take to stop gun violence, owing to the unlikelihood of achieving meaningful change through Congress. Biden’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, also tried to implement gun control through executive action. Shortly after taking office, Donald Trump then reversed an Obama-era regulation that made it more difficult for people suffering from mental illness to buy guns. Trump also threatened to veto a bill that would have required universal background checks for the majority of gun purchases or transfers. 

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are reportedly considering modest measures that might attract Republican votes, such as limited background check expansion (though whether their colleagues across the aisle would support even this is uncertain). Only eight Republicans in the House of Representatives voted with Democrats to tighten background checks earlier this month, and some Senate Democrats still hesitate to remove the filibuster, a procedural tool that can be used to prevent measures from being voted on, typically by extending debate, which can only be ended with 60 votes.

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But much as this is familiar to Americans from our pre-pandemic lives — the mass shootings in public places, the Democratic compromise, the Republican intransigence, the powerful gun lobby — the situation is even more concerning than it was before Covid-19 struck. 

Mass shootings in public places may have fallen in 2020, but the number of homicides and shooting victims increased in cities across the US, with experts blaming the stressors of the pandemic. More than 17 million background checks were completed in 2020 for gun purchases and first-time buyers of firearms accounted for an estimated 40 per cent of sales last year. In January 2021 — the month the US Capitol was stormed by a mob convinced that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election — more than two million guns were purchased. That is an 80 per cent year-on-year increase.

The US, then, has endured two mass shootings in less than a week; has one of its two major parties implacably opposed to gun control (leaving the other largely impotent); has a gun lobby that is more powerful than the 90 per cent of Americans who support universal background checks; and has tens of millions of guns sold every year. It is a nation awash with guns and lawmakers incentivised to keep it that way.

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The coronavirus pandemic may end in 2021, at least in the US. But the country will still be living – and dying – with its pandemic of guns and gun violence.

[See also: How anti-Asian hate crime has run through US history]