Jul 12, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Study: No clear link between gun sales spike and murder rise

An illustration of guns attached in a circle.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A new study casts doubt on the idea that the historic spike in gun-related homicides last year was caused by a near equally sharp rise in gun purchases.

Why it matters: 2020 saw a sharp reversal in the general decline in homicides, and 2021 hasn't been much better. As gun violence once again becomes a major issue for cities and the federal government alike, there's a desperate need to untangle the causes.

By the numbers: Researchers at the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis estimated there were 4.3 million excess firearm purchases — meaning above expected trends — from March through July 2020, and a 27% increase in firearm injuries over roughly the same time.

  • A number of politicians have connected the increase in the overall gun count to the spike in homicides, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — after declaring a state of emergency over gun violence — signing legislation that would allow victims of gun violence to sue firearms manufacturers.

Yes, but: Researchers found no clear association between more gun purchases and increased gun violence, other than a possible connection to an increase in domestic gun violence injuries during the first two months of the pandemic, when lockdowns were most severe.

  • The researchers note that it's possible that many, if not most, of the excess firearm purchases went to people who already owned guns, which would have blunted their impact on rising homicide rates.
  • The study suggests “we need to be looking at other factors, like job loss, economic change, the closure of schools and community organizations and nonprofits, and civil unrest,” Julia Schleimer, the lead author, told the Guardian.

The catch: National data on homicides is spotty and laggy — authorities won't know the full number of murders last year for months — and there is no conclusive database on gun purchases or who owns firearms in the U.S., all of which complicates connecting the dots.

  • Recent data from millions of traffic stops in New Jersey found that while the total number of stops dropped during the first six months of the pandemic, the percentage in which weapons were discovered went up significantly.
  • Cities also recorded an increase in the percentage of assaults involving guns versus other weapons, a sign that the sheer number of firearms in the U.S. — new or old — makes it more likely that a perpetrator will turn to a gun, with potentially fatal consequences.
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