Easing pandemic marks return to gun violence

Two mass shootings in one week have provided a sudden and disturbing return to the reality of gun violence in America.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a pause in mass shootings, with schools and workplaces closed, and people staying away from large gatherings.

With people returning to work and children across the country likely to report back to school in the fall, the prospect of more gun violence — a depressing part of American life — also comes to the forefront.

Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in shootings at separate spas in the Atlanta area last week. In a supermarket in Boulder, Colo., this week, 10 people were murdered, including one police officer.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a kind of reprieve from mass shootings, with the number of sprees in public places at its lowest in over 10 years. The nation has had a reprieve from school shootings, perhaps in part because so many fewer students have been physically going to school.

Former President Obama after the Boulder shooting wrote on Twitter, “a once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country.”

“It’s such a rude awakening. We’ve spent a year pining for the real world to come and these mass shootings remind us of the best and the worst of the ‘real world,’ ” said Jonathan Metzl, director of the Department of Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. “The minute we start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the minute we start congregating again, we see the other risk of human gathering, which is other people.”

Before the pandemic, the nation had been worn out by gun violence. There were shootings every 15 days on average in 2019.

Comedian Dave Chappelle in November spoke about the pause in gun violence while hosting “Saturday Night Live,” just hours after the election was called for President Biden.

“Do you guys remember what life was like before COVID?” he said. “I do. It was a mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank God for COVID.”

The twin shootings still underscored the sense that as people return to a more normal life, deaths from gun violence will also rise anew.

“America is the only place where resuming normal lives means these horrific shootings resume. It’s the only high-income country where this is happening,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action.

Gun control advocates, who have been pushing to strengthen background checks and close loopholes that allow certain people to have guns, weren’t shocked about the return of mass shootings.

“Is it a surprise? No. Why would anyone be surprised. Why would you ever expect anything to change? We haven’t done anything to change it,” Brian Lemek, executive director of Brady PAC, said.

Gun violence overall didn’t slow down during the pandemic, which saw increases in community violence, suicide and domestic violence.

Gun sales also spiked over the past year. A record number of background checks for firearms were performed, according to the FBI, reaching over 39.6 million background checks in 2020.

“Sure, we saw a dip in mass shootings. We saw a massive increase in all other forms of gun violence,” Lemek said.

“I’m particularly worried about schools reopening,” said Watts. “We know that even before the pandemic, 5 million kids lived in homes without secure guns.”

She pointed to data that shows that about 4.6 million children live in households with at least one unlocked and loaded firearm.

Prominent venues for mass shootings were limited over the past year. But, experts in gun violence point to the fact that grocery stores, like the scene in Boulder, were open.

“We know that schools and workplaces are definitely forums where shootings happen, but we also know that it has been in other settings. This grocery store shooting could have happened anytime over the past year,” said Ben Newman, associate professor in the school of public policy at University of California, Riverside.

In Boulder, the shooter’s family said he was bullied in high school, anti-social and paranoid. In Atlanta, the shooter claimed to have a sex addiction and wanted to eliminate temptation.

“In this case, I just think that it’s such a natural human tendency to try to prescribe some kind of rational human narrative because it helps us to try to understand why someone would do something — kill strangers,” Metzl said. “So many things go back to access to guns. That’s also so much a part of it. We’ve made it so easy.”

Pleas to Washington this week to act echoed those heard after other mass shootings like the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and the 2018 Parkland shooting.

Advocates are looking to Biden to act by executive order on gun violence.

“It’s an ongoing policy process internally. His view, the vice president’s view and our policy team’s view is it’s not just about addressing gun access, that’s important … it’s also about addressing community violence and a range of issues that are root causes and kind of lead to the deaths and the impact that we’re seeing that’s so troubling,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday when asked about the issue.

In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised quick action on House-passed legislation, one to strengthen background checks and another to extend the time federal investigators have to perform background checks from three days to 10 days.

But in the 50-50 Senate, at least 10 Republicans need to vote to end the debate on the legislation along with every Democrat — an uphill battle for these bills. 

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