On a muggy July evening in Durham, North Carolina, a black sedan pulled up to a party. Men got out of what police believe to be a Chevrolet Impala and opened fire on the partygoers gathered in the front yard.
Two young children, ages 8 and 4, were injured in the attack.
Later that night, another shooting — possibly related, according to police — took place at a Durham public housing development about five miles away. A stray bullet flew into an adjacent apartment unit, killing a 12-year-old boy.
In all, at least 10 people were injured by gunfire in Durham that night.
At a virtual press conference the day after the shootings, Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis looked into her computer camera with sadness in her eyes.
"There are children in our community whose lives will never be the same because of the actions of those who don't care enough to put their differences aside and their guns down," she said. "Too many innocent lives have been lost or shattered by gun violence. … We publicly implore to the individuals shooting at each other to find common ground, and make a truce to cease this back-and-forth gunfire. Think of the innocent victims impacted by your actions."
These shootings took place on the evening of July 14 and early morning of July 15, almost four months to the day from when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued the first order related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it's impossible to link a specific shooting exclusively to the pandemic, Davis said it has played a role.
"We do believe that the environment — the pandemic itself — has created an environment where these types of shootings have been quite prevalent," she said.
Those in violence prevention work have called gun violence in this country an epidemic for decades. Now, there’s a health pandemic layered on top, which has only exacerbated it.
Studies show an increase in domestic violence during the early months of the pandemic and an increase in all firearm injuries as the pandemic stretches on. While many cities appear to have seen a reduction in homicides (the majority of which are shootings) during the first two months of widespread stay-at-home orders, it now appears that homicide rates are once again rising as many states open back up, signaling that any reduction in homicide numbers was a momentary lull.
In short, violence — and especially gun violence — has spiked during the pandemic, and local leaders must grapple with how to rein in violence as they continue the fight against a deadly virus.
A temporary lull in gun violence
Preliminary data show an increase in gun violence across North Carolina and the nation during the first three months of the pandemic. Researchers from the University of California–Davis and the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center estimate an 8% increase in firearms violence from March-May, or 776 additional injuries or deaths across the nation. The researchers associate the increased violence with the increase in firearms purchasing.
While some data show homicides dropped in a few cities early on in the pandemic, possibly due to less interpersonal interactions as people adhered to stay-at-home orders, that was likely just a temporary lull. More recent data show an increase in violence, even when compared to similar months of previous years.
Violence in summer months tends to be higher than colder months, but early indications show that violence in the summer of 2020 is higher than recent years. Data from the Gun Violence Archive, for instance, showed there were 69 gun violence homicides linked to mass shootings in June 2020. From 2017 through 2019, there was an average of 40 such homicides in June.
The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot or killed. Its data come with caveats, including that it collects information from news reports. However, the methodology does not change substantially over time, making year-over-year comparisons generally reliable.
And the numbers are borne out in many cities. Durham saw 110 shootings in May and 77 in June. The average number of shootings over the past three years in May was 51, and in June was 47. Taken together, that means there were an additional 89 shootings over the three-year average for those months, according to data provided by the police department.
In Washington, D.C., homicides in May and June were also above recent averages, though homicides for the whole year have trended upward, according to data provided by D.C.’s Metropolitan Police. The first weeks of July were especially high, with 20 homicides recorded in the first half of the month. From 2017 through 2019, D.C. averaged 17.3 homicides for the entire month.
In Cleveland, there were 14 homicides with a firearm in May, and another 10 homicides with a firearm in June, according to data provided by the Cleveland Division of Police. From 2017 through 2019, those months averaged just seven such homicides per month. Felonious assaults with a firearm were also higher this year. Cleveland police reported an average of 153 such crimes in May and June 2020, up from an average of 84 per month for May and June from 2017-2019.
Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, psychiatry department chair in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attributed the increase in violence in large part to the pandemic and the additional stresses it has inflicted on people.
"I think all of us have increasing concerns that the longer this continues, that it will continue to have a greater toll on people's emotional well-being, their mental health, and it will lead to more and more destructive ways of coping for those that are in a vulnerable place," she said.
The pandemic on its own doesn't cause violence, Meltzer-Brody said, but it can inflame existing anxiety, stress, or tension. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States was facing what many health experts call both mental health and gun violence epidemics.
"All this has done is essentially you threw kerosene on it and then lit a match," she said.
‘Crime requires opportunity’
There are few studies that have looked at how the pandemic has specifically impacted violence. One study of 64 large U.S. cities found that homicide rates in April and May were lower in 2020 compared with the average rates of April and May 2017-19. This research was completed for the philanthropic group Arnold Ventures by Thomas Abt, a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice, and Richard Rosenfeld, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at University of Missouri - St. Louis.
The researchers surmise that as more people stayed in their own homes, it contributed to the decline.
"In a word, crime requires opportunity," they wrote. "Without victims there can be no offenders. As more people stay indoors, opportunities for street crime decline."
Importantly, this research did not study all violence. Other research has already found that domestic violence increased during these months, likely for the exact same reason that homicides outside the home fell. At the pandemic's outset, many researchers worried about a rise in suicides.
Furthermore, while the overall homicide rate declined for the 64-city sample, it did not fall in every city. The study found that homicide rates fell in 39 cities, while rates rose in 25 cities.
The study looked only at April and May. In a June interview, Rosenfeld said it was likely that as states relax stay-at-home orders, they could see more homicides.
He said they "speculate that we're going to see increases in homicides for most of the big cities in June and probably July and August as well."
Parallel to violence research, firearms data suggest a surge in gun sales during the pandemic, particularly in June. The Brookings Institution estimates 3 million more firearms have been sold since March over what would have normally been sold in those months, and half of that total came in June alone.
The study from the University of California–Davis and the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center linked higher firearms sales to more violence.
"We find a significant increase in firearm violence in the United States associated with the coronavirus pandemic-related surge in firearm purchasing," according to the findings, which have been publicly released but not peer-reviewed.
The study's authors noted that the increase in sales alone likely wasn't enough to fully explain the increase in violence: "The pandemic has exacerbated factors that contribute to interpersonal violence, including financial stress, tension, trauma, worry, and a sense of hopelessness.”
"All of that can make people feel on edge, hopeless," said Julia Schleimer, the study's lead author and a UC Davis data analyst. "Again, the trauma is something that drives violence, so it's important to recognize all of those contributing factors."
Continuing hardships for violence prevention
With restrictions around social distancing and other measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, those that undertake violence prevention work have had to change as well. In Durham, Bull City United has done just that by moving to virtual meetings with community members when possible.
“The Bull City United model acknowledges that our behaviors are based on the environments that surround us,” said Lindsey Bickers Bock, director of Durham County Health Education and Community Transformation. “We must engage community residents, local business owners, faith leaders, service providers, and the most vulnerable among us to guide where we invest our resources and how we check in on one another in these difficult times.”
Ben Haas, director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, points out that gun violence has been a problem in Durham for years.
“From our coalition’s experience on the ground in Durham,” Haas said, “we would have to say that yes, this COVID pandemic is not so much a creator violence as it is a multiplier of violence in our community.”
What is perhaps most concerning from a public health perspective is what could happen as the pandemic stretches on. Across North Carolina and the United States, coronavirus cases have continued to climb in July, not drop.
Dr. Joseph Williams is the medical director for the Addictions Detoxification Unit at UNC-Wakebrook, a mental health hospital operated by UNC-Chapel Hill. He worries that as the pandemic continues, violence and homicides gun-related and otherwise will continue to rise.
"You have this pattern that already exists, where in the summer months, there is an increase in the violence rate and the homicide rate in this country,” he said. “And I think it would be likely that this will get worse before it gets better.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.