Gun killings in U.S. cities: The scourge not even a pandemic lockdown can stop

Not even a deadly pandemic has halted the spread of another scourge: gun violence in American cities. Despite stay-at-home orders, some cities are seeing similar, or even higher, homicide figures. Meanwhile, some police forces are overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases in their ranks.

Homicide figures are similar, even higher, in some American cities despite stay-at-home orders

There have been many shootings in Chicago in recent weeks. Pictured here is a crime scene back in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic, where five people were shot in a Chicago barbershop. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune via The Associated Press)

A car pulled up to a convenience store, and four people hopped out. One had a baseball bat. What ensued was a fight over $180, one participant later said.

By the time it was over, guns were drawn, shots were exchanged, and one bullet tore into a nearby car, striking the head of five-year-old Kearria Attison. 

The girl died. Before fleeing the scene, one of the people involved reportedly offered the girl's mother a quick apology

Several people now face murder charges for the deadly shooting in Jacksonville, Fla., on April 6, which police say involved individuals with violent pasts.

"Too bad these criminals haven't taken time off during the COVID-19 outbreak," one woman posted on the police department's Facebook page.

Court records from Duval County, Fla., describe the confrontation that led to the shooting death of five-year-old Kearria Attison. (Duval County Clerk Of Courts)

Some preliminary data suggests she's right. 

It does indeed appear that not even a deadly pandemic has halted the spread of another scourge in the United States: gun violence. 

This despite lockdown orders, a historic pause in school shootings, and statistical evidence that people aren't moving around much these days.

That grim reality has been underscored in Canada, too, which experienced the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history last weekend in Nova Scotia. In Toronto, there have been dozens of shootings since early March.

Overall, killings are down slightly in Toronto compared to last year. In some American cities, there's been no slowdown at all. 

In fact, some U.S. cities have seen an increase.

Gang shootings 'do not slow down'

Mark Bryant, who tracks U.S. shootings for the Gun Violence Archive, said it will take a while to properly analyze the data for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But what he detects so far is an increase in gang shootings and domestic violence, amid a drop in workplace and school shootings. 

"[Gang shootings] are like the Energizer bunny — they do not slow down. They're as consistent as can be," he said.

Shootings were more frequent than normal in Detroit early this month. They were also higher in Washington, D.C. While other crimes were down, the city website registered 12 homicides over the last month, up from six in the same period last year. 

"Unfortunately, gun crimes are mostly unchanged," is how Washington's mayor, Muriel Bowser, put it during a news conference this week.

COVID-19 has devastated some police departments in the U.S. The New York Police Department has been hit particularly hard. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Even with New York City paralyzed by the pandemic, homicide trends have barely budged. Data released by the NYPD shows 18 homicides in a 28-day period ending April 12 compared to 20 for the same period last year. The data doesn't specify how many were caused by guns.

Last weekend alone in Chicago, at least five people were killed and 28 were wounded by gun violence. Killings are down this spring compared with March-April 2019, but the overall annual numbers are still up.

After six people were shot this month at a large party in an apartment complex in Bakersfield, Calif., several people fumed on the county sheriff's Facebook page. "Churches can't meet or they face trouble but a lawless group gathers," said a post from Norma Jean Onyschuk.

Some historical perspective

The long-term trend isn't totally bleak. 

Gun violence is still short of its worst peaks in the 1970s and 1990s in the United States. Yet it began trending upward in 2015 after years of decline, with both homicides and suicides on the rise. 

And it's not just an urban phenomenon, as it's frequently portrayed. 

When taking into account suicides as well as homicides, the three U.S. states with the highest per capita rate of firearm deaths are Alaska, Alabama and Montana.

Gun sales have surged during the pandemic. A pedestrian pushes a stroller as people wait in line last month outside a gun store in Culver City, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

In several cities, though, police forces are now especially overwhelmed.

The pandemic has spread through numerous police departments, sickening hundreds of officers.

The head of Detroit's homicide division died from the illness, and the chief of police was also sickened, and is recovering. Dozens of New York City officers have died; the NYPD's chief of transportation was on life-support

Hundreds of Chicago police officers have tested positive and the force is among several reportedly working on obtaining antibody testing.

Many city police forces also report an uptick in domestic violence in their communities.

In one case, a man in a Chicago suburb fatally shot his wife and himself. 

Their family told police the man feared they had COVID-19.

U.S. federal data began showing a spike in shootings in 2015, after a historic decline. (Pew Research)

There are different theories about what variables are driving the uptick in gun violence of recent years. 

Some blame the opioid epidemic, and its effect on the drug trade. Some blame small street gangs, with younger members, whose feuds escalate quickly on social media

Some police blame the so-called Ferguson effect — that's the much-debated idea that protests against police brutality a few years ago, in addition to deadly attacks on officers, caused police to scale back their interventions.

A few studies point to one glaring fact of American life: the country has many, many guns.

Researchers from the University of Missouri-St. Louis suggest assaults and robberies are becoming deadlier because guns are used more often. 

paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2018 finds access to firearms highly correlated to rates of firearm death.

At Harvard, David Hemenway, director of the university's Injury Control Center, said the proliferation of guns makes the U.S. unique among developed countries.

Canada's historical homicide trends. (Statistics Canada)

Mark Bryant, co-founder of the Gun Violence Archive, said there are too many guns in too many irresponsible hands. 

He's a Kentucky resident who owns firearms himself. He said he has them locked away in a safe, and there are a few steps required to get them out. He joked that if he were ever in a frantic fight he'd probably forget the safe combination.

Gang members aren't taking those precautions, he said.

"These guys have guns parked everywhere. They've got a gun in the couch," he said.

"Shootings start out as someone being smacked around. Then it escalates, due to alcohol, or drugs, or anger. Then a gun comes out. And with 50, 60 million people [in this country] having guns, the likelihood [of violence] … is more frequent." 

Meanwhile, gun sales surged early in the pandemic. 

The New York Times reported that the nearly two million firearm sales last month represented the biggest spike since President Barack Obama began a gun-control push seven years ago in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now