Two Public Health Emergencies: COVID-19 and Gun Violence

Sophie Mackin, Assistant Forum Editor

While staying inside and social distancing are helping to keep us safe from COVID-19, these measures unfortunately put some people at an increased risk of experiencing gun violence and/or domestic violence. 

The number of gunshot victims has not dwindled in the face of the pandemic.  Hospitals across the country are struggling to regulate critical healthcare services like I.C.U beds and ventilators as both COVID-19 and gunshot patients need them. On April 1st, a Philadelphia doctor published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Please, Stop Shooting. We Need the Beds.” In her article, Dr. Elinore Kaufman explained that gun violence has resulted in as many deaths as COVID-19 this year. In the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center where she works, her team took care of eleven gunshot victims during the first week of April, as research shows that gun violence rates might actually be increasing right now. She urged the public not to purchase new weapons despite the fear and uncertainty of this time in order to prevent gun-related injuries and save hospital resources for those with the coronavirus.

Other cities have raised similar concerns as to how gun violence is affecting their hospitals’ resources. Chicago has seen a spike in shootings during the past few days in particular with 21 people shot on April 7th and nine people on April 8th. The city’s mayor along with the police superintendent gave a public announcement to stress the severity of this issue. Both of them emphasized that gun violence is an epidemic that has devastated communities for many years and is now compromising efforts to confront the coronavirus. “Violence of any kind is never acceptable, but the fact is that this is especially urgent now as our ability to treat all Chicagoans is being stretched to the breaking point,” declared the mayor. 

In addition, domestic violence, which can involve guns as well as other forms of psychological, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, has been on the rise around the world due to the circumstances of lockdown. Hotline and emergency call services have been reporting significant increases in calls ever since governments started encouraging isolation to protect against the coronavirus. Unfortunately, police and legal services are limited during this pandemic and do not have the resources to adequately respond to every call or help people escape their abusive situations. Shelters and non-profit organizations are not equipped to respond to such high numbers and cannot properly operate due to social distancing. This pattern will likely worsen as time in isolation continues, unemployment rises, and anxiety grows. 

In light of these realities, I urge the federal government and state leaders to take more steps to support victims of violence despite the obstacles of quarantining. They deserve to feel safe, to feel heard, and to feel as though there are structures in place to help them if they are in danger. Notably, I believe an important step to this is making sure that gun stores are no longer classified as “essential businesses” during shutdowns. Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the demand for guns has skyrocketed. Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Texas have deemed gun stores to be essential, while 19 other states are involved in legal battles over the issue. Allowing gun shops to remain open will lead to more fear-based purchases, unintentional shootings, and instances like what happened in Georgia two weeks ago when a man aimed his gun at two women wearing masks and shouted at them to not come any closer. 

In addition, mental health professionals and organizations across the country need to be prepared to respond to the trauma and anxiety that will pervade our communities once quarantine ends too. The impact of COVID-19 will stay with all of us for a very long time as we mourn the lives lost and the experiences we will never get to have; for victims of violence, however, they will also have to live with the effects of what they endured. 

This pandemic has shown us that it is in fact possible to come together as a country to respond to a public health emergency. Gun violence is also a public health emergency, one that has warranted a national response for quite some time. More than 100 Americans are killed with guns every day. Even before the coronavirus, Amnesty International put in place a travel advisory for the United States due to the high levels of gun violence. Published after this summer’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the advisory cautions travelers to “be wary of the ubiquity of firearms among the population” and “avoid places where large numbers of people gather, especially cultural events, places of worship, schools, and shopping malls.” Amnesty International believes the United States has failed in its obligation to regulate access to firearms as expected under international human rights laws.

And yet, there continues to be strong resistance from our federal government as well as many state governments and lobbying groups to pass common sense gun laws. I hope that this moment will help the nation recognize the urgency of this issue as well as the wide spectrum of impacts it has on our lives. Even after there is a vaccine for COVID-19 and our economy eventually recovers from these unprecedented shutdowns, gun violence will continue to be with us. However, unlike the uncertainty and questions regarding COVID-19, we already know some of the critical steps to preventing the spread of gun violence and protecting one another: background checks and strong red flag laws.

If you or a loved one is in a dangerous situation and trapped at home, here are some numbers you can call for help:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: 1-800-656-HOPE

You can also text “LOVEIS” to 22522.