The spate of shooting attacks in communities such as Highland Park, Illinois; Uvalde, Texas; and Buffalo, New York, has riveted attention on the staggering number of public mass killings in the United States. But the rising number of gun deaths extends beyond such high-profile episodes, emerging nearly every day inside homes, outside bars and on the streets of many cities, according to federal data.
The surge in gun violence comes as firearm purchases rose to record levels in 2020 and 2021, with more than 43 million guns estimated to have been purchased during that period, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data on gun background checks. At the same time, the rate of gun deaths in those years hit the highest level since 1995, with more than 45,000 fatalities each year.
Guns account for most suicides and are almost entirely responsible for an overall rise in homicides across the country from 2018 to 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Over the long holiday weekend, when seven people were killed and dozens wounded at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, numerous other fatal shootings played out across the country. In nearby Chicago, 10 people were killed and more than 60 wounded in a string of shootings over the weekend. One person was killed and four were wounded in a shooting outside a Sacramento, California, nightclub. Two people were fatally shot at a home in Haltom City, Texas, and a neighbor and three police officers were injured. A man was fatally shot in Clinton, North Carolina; hours later, six people, including two children, were injured in a separate shooting there.
There is not one clear answer as to what is driving the rise in bloodshed, experts said, but possible factors include the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, fraying ties between the police and the public, mounting anger, worsening mental strain and the sheer number of guns in the United States.
“You put all that into a pressure cooker,” said Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami, “and you let the pressure cooker blow up.”
Local leaders, law enforcement officials and anti-violence advocates say they have seen a worrisome trend recently, in which disputes that would have previously led to fistfights instead escalated rapidly to gunfire.
“What we’re seeing is a different type of violence here in Pittsburgh,” said the Rev. Eileen Smith, executive director of the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace, a nonprofit that includes violence interrupters. “They’re not fighting, at least not outside of school. They’re killing.”
The ample access to guns plays a significant role, experts said. Americans are arming themselves in the face of deepening fears and divisions, frightening public incidents involving gunfire or violence, or simply because they know others may also have guns.
Data shows that gun sales increase in the wake of violence, political events and uncertainty. Large spikes occurred after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut; amid coronavirus shutdowns, racial justice protests and the presidential election in 2020; and after the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol.
With an estimated 400 million guns in the country, a figure that eclipses the U.S. population, “there is a self-fulfilling prophecy of, ‘I need a gun because everyone else around me has a gun,'” said Sasha Cotton, director of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention.
The agonizing frequency of nonfatal shootings and firearm deaths, experts said, has become a uniquely American phenomenon.
“Many other countries have disadvantaged folks who are angry and alienated,” said Richard Berk, a professor emeritus of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania. “But guns aren’t there.”
Mass killings, particularly those in which a gunman opens fire in a crowded public space, tend to draw much more attention than daily violence. But these shootings represent a fraction of gun violence overall, said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University and co-founder of the Violence Project, which studies mass killers.
With a mass shooting defined as four or more people killed, Peterson said, such cases account for fewer than 1% of all people killed by firearms. They are “very rare, still, even though they’re increasing,” she said. But, Peterson said, it’s not an accident that they receive so much more attention.
“Mass shootings, by design, [are] meant to go viral in that sense. That’s the goal of them, is fame, is notoriety,” she said. And these public mass shootings have a “psychological impact” on people, instilling fear of going to the movies or a grocery store, she said.
Monday’s rampage in Illinois marked the 15th time this year that four or more people were killed in a shooting, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that maintains a database of incidents of gun violence.
The vast majority of gun deaths in the United States are either suicides or homicides, according to federal data, with accidental or undetermined gun deaths representing a small fraction of the overall share.
Two demographic groups bear the brunt of escalating gun violence and are most likely to die of a gunshot wound in the United States: young Black men and older White men.
White men are six times as likely to die by suicide as other Americans. Black men are 17 times as likely to be killed with a gun fired by someone else.
About 60% of the gun deaths in the United States each year are suicides, according to CDC data spanning the past 20 years.
Firearms accounted for about 8% of suicide attempts but slightly more than 50% of the 47,511 suicide deaths in 2019, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Men are nearly four times as likely as women to succeed in a suicide attempt, mainly because they are much more likely to use a gun.
Of the 90,498 gun deaths in 2020 and 2021, 38,796 were homicides. Nearly 21,000 of those victims were Black men.
Cotton, in Minneapolis, said the higher homicide toll among Black people brought to mind the saying: When America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu.
“Of course it’s worse,” she said. “COVID was worse for us. Gun violence is worse for us. And the trickle-down effect will continue to be worse for us, until there’s equity in our systems and in our society.”
Data shows gun deaths surged almost everywhere in the United States in 2020, “a very broad phenomenon” and one that “was almost as intense outside of metro areas as it was inside of metropolitan areas,” said Philip Cook, a Duke University professor emeritus of public policy and economics.
In 2020, while the overall crime rate nationwide fell, “that was not true for shootings,” Cook said. That year, he said, there was an “unparalleled” surge in people killed by firearms compared with 2019.
Some states, including New Jersey, have tightened gun laws in recent weeks, in response to recent shootings and a Supreme Court decision that expanded gun-carry rights outside the home. At the federal level, Congress last month approved, and President Joe Biden signed, gun-control legislation that provides funding for mental health services and school security initiatives and expands criminal background checks for some gun buyers.
Determining the precise number of guns sold in the United States each year is difficult. The data does not capture weapon sales from private sellers at gun shows or online marketplaces, because law does not require them to submit background checks. Firearm sales estimates are based on methodology applied to FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System data surveying handgun, long-gun and multiple-gun background checks leading to purchases.
There is little consensus as to why gun sales and deaths have jumped so much over the past two years. The only clear thing, Cook said, is that “the increase in homicide was almost entirely an increase in gun homicide.” Beyond that, it is difficult to parse all the things happening at once. Even the theories that have been floated about the rise in violence have weaknesses, experts said, adding that there is a lack of good research about what is driving the increase.
Some experts theorize that the pandemic helped drive the surge in killings. But gun deaths started rising in 2015 before spiking five years later, said Andrew Morral, a behavioral scientist at the Rand Corp. and leader of its Gun Policy in America initiative.
The rise in gun sales, he said, might also play a role. “But the real question in my mind is: Is that the key driver? Does that explain a lot of the jump or a little of the jump?” he said. “And I don’t know.”
Homicide rates remained low for more than two decades before 2015, “even as the number of guns in circulation was increasing,” Morral said. If the gun sales drove the spike, why did that not happen over those decades?
Morral said one theory — claiming that police pulled back in response to racial justice protests and calls to cut funding in 2020 — has problems because the surge in violence happened across the board, in urban areas and rural ones, in blue cities and red. American policing is decentralized, with some 15,000 local departments and sheriff’s offices, most of them employing no more than two dozen officers.
Morral said that there is some evidence of police pulling back but that “making the link from de-policing to homicides is a big jump.” To grow “beyond anecdote,” he said, more research is needed.
“There’s certainly people who will claim it’s not mysterious and point at one thing or another,” said Berk, of the University of Pennsylvania. “But I haven’t heard a coherent narrative which integrates all the pieces. And I’m not sure we’ll ever have one.”
Cook, of Duke, said increased efforts to solve shootings could help get a handle on the surge in violence, even if its precise drivers are unknown. Police nationwide in 2020 “cleared” about half of all homicides, according to the FBI, which usually means that someone was arrested and charged or the case was closed another way, including the death of the attacker.
Solving more shootings, particularly nonfatal ones, “would interrupt the cycle of retaliation,” Cook said, and might improve local trust in the police. “That would be a productive use of money,” he said.
It is also difficult to determine exactly who will commit gun violence, though research shows that politicians and others may be focusing too much attention on one factor, particularly when it comes to mass shootings.
In the wake of mass shootings, politicians are often quick to invoke mental health.
“Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge. Period,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said shortly after the Uvalde shooting in May.
But three decades of research has established that people with mental illness are responsible for just a small percentage of interpersonal and gun violence.
Numerous studies have reached the same conclusion: While people with illnesses such as schizophrenia have a somewhat greater risk of committing violent acts than other members of the public, and substance use increases that risk, the vast majority of people with mental illness never perpetrate violence. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence.
There is one major, well-established connection between mental illness and gun violence: suicide. A Rand report summarizing other studies found higher rates of suicide among people with mental health issues that included depression and schizophrenia.
It’s clear that many other factors are more closely associated with gun violence than mental illness. They include experiencing trauma and violence during childhood, being young and male, living in neighborhoods where violence is more prevalent, poor impulse control, poor anger control and, perhaps most of all, easy access to a firearm.
“To think we’re going to lower population-level violence rates by better treatment of mental illness, we’re not going to get there doing that,” said Daniel Webster, who studies gun violence policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Instead, he said, officials must help create environments where there is less trauma in the home, support families and strengthen services for children in schools.
In 1994, Duke gun violence researcher Jeffrey Swanson calculated that if all active psychotic and mood disorders were eliminated overnight, interpersonal violence would be reduced by just 4%. In many other countries, guns are tightly restricted, but the United States has taken a different route, he said.
“We don’t have gun control as much as we have people control,” he said. “We try to figure out the people who are so dangerous that we have to limit their access to guns.”
The 1998 MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, which followed 951 people who had been released from three psychiatric facilities, found that 23 committed 67 acts of interpersonal gun violence — a rate of 2% — in the next year. Just 19 of those acts, committed by nine people, were against strangers.
Research conducted in 2020 by a team led by Swanson found that among people in Florida with serious mental illnesses, including some who were committed to a psychiatric facility involuntarily or for a short-term emergency hold, 0.9% were arrested in connection with a violent crime involving a gun within seven years — about the same rate as the general population.
Recent years have been brutal for Americans’ mental health, with the CDC finding that rates of anxiety and depression tripled nationwide. But there is no reason to believe that is responsible for rising gun violence over the past two years, said Jennifer Skeem, a clinical psychologist and professor of public policy and social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley.
The consistent invocations of mental health after massacres such as those in Buffalo, Uvalde and Highland Park are ways for officials to distance themselves from the horror of the event, to explain the unfathomable, Skeem said.
“It’s a tragedy that demands explanation, and the stigma of mental illness is something that fuels pseudo-explanations,” she said. “It’s a fake explanation. Why has this man done this terrible thing? The answer is because he’s mentally ill. How do you know he’s mentally ill? Because he’s done this terrible thing.”
The most common mass killings, Peterson said, are those that typically get the least public attention: household killings, in which someone kills their relatives and then themself.
In that sense, those mass killings have something in common with most other gun violence in the United States: People tend to know their killers, according to FBI data.
“Commonly, the victim and the perpetrator know each other or know about each other,” Berk said. “They’re not total strangers. It makes it even more sad.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.