Homicides and suicides involving guns, which soared in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, continued rising in 2021, reaching the highest rates in three decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
Firearms caused 47,286 homicide and suicide deaths in 2021, up from 43,675 in 2020, according to the agency’s research, which is based on provisional data. Rates of gun-related homicide and suicide each rose by 8.3% last year.
Including unintentional deaths and those related to law enforcement activities, the total number of gun-related deaths in the United States was 48,832 in 2021, according to a separate analysis by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
“Everyone is talking about the rise in homicides, but it is largely driven by guns,” said Ari Davis, a policy adviser at the center.
Yet, gun suicides also drove an overall rise in suicides. “An 8% increase in gun suicides over one year is a really large increase,” Davis said. “It’s very worrisome.”
From 2019-21, homicides involving guns increased by 45%, while murders that did not involve firearms increased by only 6%, according to a preliminary analysis by the center.
While gun-related suicides increased by 10% over the two-year period, suicides by other means decreased by about 8%, according to the analysis.
Although the CDC research does not address the underlying causes, the increase in firearm deaths parallels a spike in gun purchases during the pandemic, including an increase in first-time owners.
Americans went on a gun-buying spree in 2020 that continued into 2021, when in a single week the FBI reported a record 1.2 million background checks.
Purchasers often turn to handguns for self-protection, but research has shown that having a firearm in the home dramatically raises the risk of gun death, including homicides and suicides.
Other disruptive aspects of the pandemic may also have contributed to increased violence, said Thomas Simon, lead author of the CDC research.
“There have been changes and disruptions in services, in education, increased mental stress and isolation, and economic stressors, all related to COVID,” Simon said.
He added: “We also had concerns in a lot of communities about law enforcement’s use of lethal force, and tension and distrust of law enforcement. So, there may have been an impact on the community’s willingness to engage with law enforcement.”
Domestic violence may also have increased during the pandemic, Simon said.
Gun deaths rose among men and women in 2021, although men still made up the majority of gun-related victims and suicides. Young adults ages 25-44 were the most likely to be killed with a firearm.
And although there were increases in gun homicides among all racial and ethnic groups last year, the rise was primarily concentrated in Black and Hispanic communities. Black people continued to experience the highest gun-homicide rates in every age group.
The racial disparity is particularly acute among youngsters and young adults ages 10-24.
The firearm-homicide rate among Black youngsters and young adults in 2020 was already 20 times higher than among white young people. In 2021, the gap widened as gun homicides among white youngsters decreased slightly, and the rate of firearm homicides among Black young people is now almost 25 times as high.
“This is an example of an unacceptable disparity that has continue to go in the wrong direction,” Simon said. “It’s possible the stressors associated with the pandemic, which we know hit racial and ethnic communities harder in many areas, could be contributing to these inequities.”
Overall, Black and Hispanic Americans were, respectively, 13.7 and 2.4 times as likely to die in a gun homicide as white people in 2021 — the largest such difference in over a decade, according to the Johns Hopkins analysis.
Suicides involving firearms increased by only 1% during the first year of the pandemic but soared in 2021, increasing from 24,292 in 2020 to 26,320 in 2021, the highest one-year increase reported by the CDC and a record high, according to Davis.
The increase occurred among men and women, and in most age, racial and ethnic groups.
Gun-related suicides have long been more common among older white men, and in 2021, more than 80% of all gun suicides were among white Americans. Those ages 45 and older had the highest gun-suicide rates.
But Black and Hispanic Americans accounted for the greatest increases in gun-suicide rates overall from 2020-21, and Native American and Alaska Native people had the highest gun-related suicide rate among adults under 45 years of age.
Sarah Burd Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety, called on gun owners to keep firearms locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition, and for the implementation of so-called red-flag laws that enable the temporary removal of firearms from individuals who are in crisis.
“The pandemic continues to cause huge dislocations in everyone’s lives — economic uncertainty, social upheaval, anxiety about our health, loss of routines affecting everyone — and it’s had a particular toll on young people,” Sharps said.
She added: “And there have been years of policy decisions where gun laws are being loosened in some states, and continued underinvestment in Black and Latinx communities.”