Californians bought more than 100,000 new guns in early months of the pandemic

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SIG Pro semi-automatic pistol (SP 2022 variant) depicted alongside a box of 9×19 Luger ammunition. UC Davis researchers found that about 110,000 new firearms were purchased statewide through mid-July. Photo by Augustas Didžgalvis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Remember in March when long lines of customers snaked around gun stores? UC Davis researchers have tried to put an exact number on how many Californians have bought a firearm as a result of the pandemic. They found that about 110,000 new firearms were purchased statewide through mid-July. They also found that many of the California buyers are new gun owners, and a large number of households are not locking up loaded guns.

Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz led the UC Davis study. She’s an assistant professor with the school’s Violence Prevention Research Program. She talks to KCRW about what’s behind the buying spree. 

KCRW: Who is buying these guns and why? 

Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz: “We've seen nationally that there's been a spike in firearm purchasing during the pandemic nationally. It looks like about 2.1 million excess sales. And so we were interested in nailing that down for California. And as you've mentioned, we found that 110,000 Californians, current firearm owners, said that they have purchased a firearm in direct response to the pandemic. And that included roughly 47,000 new owners who may have little past experience or training with firearms.

We asked respondents why they purchased firearms during the pandemic here. And those who did generally cited a perceived need for self protection that appears somewhat consistent with what some have described as the current president's campaign strategy of selling fear. So two-thirds claimed worry about lawlessness, and closer to half cited worries about prisoner releases or the government going too far.”

COVID might have been an exacerbating factor, but there were other issues involved?

“We think that the pandemic has exacerbated many of these underlying fears and uncertainty about the future. As well as more broadly, some of the underlying conditions that we think contribute to violence, things like poverty, unemployment, lack of resources, and even social isolation and hopelessness and loss as well.”

A lot of these people already owned a gun. But more than 40% of the gun owners hadn't previously owned a firearm. Do they know how to store guns safely? Do you see new dangers from this kind of a buying spree?

“We did see a number of new firearm owners here. And we also asked firearm owners who had purchased guns about changes in their firearm storage practices. And we found that an estimated 55,000 people who currently store at least one firearm loaded and not locked up — reported they adopted this unsecure storage practice in response to the pandemic. And approximately half of those respondents lived in homes with children or teens, which we know there's some risk there.”

Right now we’re seeing a big increase in the number of people with mental health challenges. That's a concern as well, right?

“Exactly. We know that there's an extensive body of evidence suggesting that the presence of a firearm in the home elevates risk for firearm-related injury and death. And this is particularly the case when we think about unintentional shootings as well as suicide.”

Are you concerned that we could potentially see another spike of gun buying after the election, particularly if control of the White House or the Senate changes hands?

“In previous years, we have seen spikes in firearm purchasing following political elections, but also things like public mass shootings. So yes, there is a potential. And actually, we found that the percentage of respondents who said they purchased a firearm in response to the pandemic was very similar to the percentage of respondents who said they had purchased a firearm previously in response to a political election.”

What can state or local communities do to try to prevent an increase in violence?

“Ensuring that firearms are stored securely, meaning unloaded and locked up, separate from ammunition and inaccessible to children and vulnerable adults is critical. 

But also given the impulsive nature of many types of violence — [there are] short-term crisis interventions such as … temporary firearm storage outside the home, extreme risk protection orders, or what are called gun violence restraining orders here in California.

… Given the uptick in shootings in many cities across the country, efforts involving community-based violence intervention workers may be particularly critical for reducing the burden and the ripple effects of violence related harms.

We're part of the School of Medicine here at UC Davis, and so one of the things we encourage health professionals to do is have conversations with their patients about firearm safety.

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Chery Glaser