Gun Control

July 3, 2020
Has national turmoil blunted the momentum for new laws?

The COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests following the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, have shaken up the gun control debate. The twin crises sparked a surge in gun sales, with the FBI performing 6.6 million background checks on would-be gun buyers in March and April alone. Many of the guns were purchased by first-time buyers who feared the violence unleashed by some of the protests, or were concerned that the pandemic would wreak havoc on society. The boom in gun sales has prompted concerns that an increase in gun violence and suicides will follow. COVID-19 temporarily pushed gun control out of the headlines, but the Supreme Court brought it back in June when it declined to hear appeals of 10 cases restricting gun ownership.

Boogaloo Bois walk next to Black Lives Matter protesters A member of the far-right militia Boogaloo Bois walks next to Black Lives Matter protesters outside a police building on May 29 in Charlotte, N.C. Gun sales and fears of violence have increased in the wake of the nationwide protests. (AFP/Getty Images/Logan Cyrus)

Fears that society could unravel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with occasional violent unrest following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, have spurred a surge in gun sales.

One of the buyers was Angel Rambert of Atlanta, who purchased her first gun in June after looters ransacked an AT&T store across the street from her apartment. The 26-year-old said owning a gun gave her a greater sense of security.

“During the times we’re living in, you just never know what might happen,” Rambert said. 1

And fears that the pandemic could cause a breakdown in law and order prompted 29-year-old Daniel Hill of Charlotte, N.C., to purchase his first guns in March — a 9-millimeter Taurus handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. 2

Hill and Rambert were among the millions of Americans who rushed to buy guns because of the pandemic and the protests. The surge in gun sales overwhelmed the FBI’s background check system, which examines an applicant’s criminal, mental health and drug use history, immigration status and other things. In March alone, the agency conducted a record 3.7 million checks on would-be gun buyers. 3 In May, Americans bought an estimated 1.7 million firearms, according to the research organization Smalls Arms Analytics & Forecasting, based in Greenville, S.C. 4

Politics may also be driving guns sales. President Trump’s handling of the protests and pandemic has generated widespread criticism and helped push presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ahead in many polls. 5 Historically, gun sales increase when a Democrat is president, because of fears that Democrats will toughen gun control laws. 6

Gun control was expected to be a major focus of the 2020 campaign, but “the pandemic is taking all the oxygen in terms of issues,” says Mark R. Joslyn, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of The Gun Gap: The Influence of Gun Ownership on Political Behavior and Attitudes.

Because of the pandemic, “it’s harder to do effective organizing and lobbying,” says Jacob Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University. “Grassroots advocacy groups can’t meet together and go somewhere.”

Nevertheless, gun control and gun rights groups remain active despite the challenges of lobbying in an era of social distancing and travel restrictions. To date, 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed so-called red flag laws that allow law enforcement officers to temporarily seize a gun from those considered a danger to themselves or others. But legislation to create a nationwide red flag law has stalled in Congress. In August 2019, President Trump voiced support for such measures after mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. By fall, he had dropped discussion of the topic. 7

Legislative Efforts

In April — almost a year after a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach, Va., municipal building left 12 victims and the gunman dead, and five months after Democrats won control of the state’s General Assembly — Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed several gun control measures. These included background checks for all gun sales and a red flag law.

Virginia Beach memorial honors victims of mass shooting at municipal building A memorial in Virginia Beach, Va., honors victims of a mass shooting at the city’s municipal building in June 2019. In response to the killings, the state Legislature passed a series of gun control measures. (Getty Images/Zach Gibson)

Trump, a Republican, criticized Virginia’s actions. “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said in a tweet. “That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away.” 8

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., introduced the Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act. The bill calls for creating a federal gun licensing system, requiring universal background checks in all states and for all types of sales, banning sales to civilians of military assault weapons and other measures. 9

In Georgia, Republican state Rep. Ken Pullin introduced a bill in the Legislature that would block any future red flag laws. 10

In Michigan, armed protests at the state Capitol over pandemic-related lockdowns sparked a flurry of legislative activity. Democratic state Sens. Mallory McMorrow and Dayna Polehanki co-sponsored a resolution to prohibit firearms and other weapons in public areas of the building and to install screening checkpoints.

“We have an obligation to keep all visitors and works at the Capitol safe,” McMorrow said. 11

Ten senators signed onto the resolution. 12

Two other bills introduced in the Michigan House would prohibit people from bringing guns into buildings that are owned or leased by the state. Twenty lawmakers cosponsored the bills, which are pending before the Committee on Government Operations. 13

The armed protesters were demonstrating against stay-at-home orders imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. On April 30, they entered the Capitol building, and some went to the Senate’s public gallery. A few lawmakers donned bulletproof vests in response.

“It’s a scary feeling trying to come into work — to do the work of the people — while protesters are trying to storm the building and having men with semi-automatic weapons hovering over you in the gallery,” said Democratic Sen. Sylvia Santana. 14

Two weeks later, Michigan temporarily shut down its Capitol building and canceled its legislative session following online death threats against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had imposed the stay-at-home measures.

The governor and Attorney General Dana Nessel have discussed banning weapons from the Capitol, but are awaiting a ruling from a state commission on whether they have the legal authority to do so.

“No one should be intimidated by someone who’s bringing in an assault rifle into their workplace,” Whitmer said. 15

But Rep. Matt Maddock, a Republican, said, “People are tired, angry, broke, are unemployed and protesting. They have no direction and are confused. They’re demonstrating their constitutional rights.”

Maddock added that guns in the building should not be restricted. “I like being around people with guns,” he said. 16

Elections and Activism

Facing the difficulties of lobbying during the pandemic, organizations such as Students Demand Action have moved their gun control efforts online. The group, which is supported by former Democratic presidential contender Michael Bloomberg, had planned to hold major voter registration drives at schools until the pandemic closed campuses.

Now the group is spending $1.5 million on virtual voter registration drives with the goal of registering 100,000 young voters ahead of the November elections. Its efforts are focused on 13 battleground states, including Florida and Texas. 17

Many young people began fighting for gun control measures following the 2018 killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, co-founded by Bloomberg, said it intends to spend $60 million this year to support candidates who favor gun control.

It also is enlisting religious leaders in its effort to increase voter turnout. The Rev. Rob Schenck, who is president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, a religious reform group based in Washington, said gun violence is a “life-or-death issue, which makes it a supreme moral consideration. Churches, especially white evangelical churches, have largely ignored this question — I think, much to their own detriment and to the detriment of the people they’re called to serve.” 18

While gun control groups push for new laws, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which offered crucial support for Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign, has been beset by turmoil, including investigations by the attorneys general in New York state and Washington, D.C., allegations of financial misconduct and departures of top staff members. As of January, the legal troubles had cost the organization $100 million in revenue. In March, the NRA announced plans to lay off an unspecified number of staffers and institute 20 percent pay cuts, actions that it has blamed on COVID-19. 19

It also postponed its annual meeting, originally scheduled for spring in Nashville, Tenn. In June it announced it would hold the meeting in Springfield, Mo., in September.

“The cancellation of the annual meeting had a significant financial impact but, beyond that, the health crisis has caused us to postpone countless fundraising and membership events along with competitions, training seminars and other revenue streams — those disruptions are the primary drivers of our decision-making process,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “Like every other business and noNPRofit, we are forced to make tough choices in this new economic environment.” 20

But Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland, said the NRA’s “real problem is they had real existing financial problems before this [the pandemic] happened. It simply does not bode well for their impact on the upcoming election.” 21

The NRA’s woes come as support for gun control measures has risen in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll in September found 60 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws, up from 52 percent in 2017. Yet the nation remains divided along partisan lines on the issue: Tougher gun laws were supported by 86 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, but just 31 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

The percentage of Democrats supporting stronger gun measures has climbed by 11 percentage points from 2017, while the share of Republicans supporting such measures has risen 7 percentage points, Pew found. 22

Trump’s reelection campaign is presenting the president as a champion of gun rights, repeatedly telling supporters that Democrats plan to take away their weapons. “Democrats have shown they don’t respect the Second Amendment, which will be one of many contrasts drawn during the campaign,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. 23

“The Trump administration tends to see an advantage in the division of gun owners and non-gun owners,” says Joslyn, the University of Kansas professor.

Biden has a host of gun control proposals on his campaign website, including banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; requiring background checks for all gun sales; and offering incentives for states to pass red flag laws. 24

Court Rulings

Both gun rights and gun control advocates have been waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a major Second Amendment case for more than a decade, and both were disappointed when the court declined in April to rule on a New York case.

The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, challenged a New York City law that prohibited residents from transporting their pistols anywhere other than to several firing ranges within the city.

After the court initially agreed to hear the case, the city changed the law to allow handgun owners to transport their firearms to second homes or shooting range outside the city. The city said this made the case moot. The high court agreed. 25

In June, the Supreme Court declined to hear appeals in 10 additional cases, including whether a state can ban assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines and can restrict handgun permits to those who show they need guns for self-defense.

Second Amendment supporters and some justices were disappointed. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the Second Amendment protects “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms. In several jurisdictions throughout the country, law-abiding citizens have been barred from exercising the fundamental right to bear arms because they cannot show that they have a ‘justifiable need’ or ‘good reason’ for doing so. One would think that such an onerous burden on a fundamental right would warrant this Court’s review.” 26

Gun Violence

As the pandemic-inspired lockdown began to ease in some places in May, and protesters gathered following Floyd’s death, the number of mass shootings rose. The Gun Violence Archive, a noNPRofit research group, recorded 59 mass shootings in May — the highest monthly total since the group started keeping count in 2013. It said that between January and April, 20 to 26 mass shootings had occurred per month. The archive defines a mass shooting as any incident in which four or more people are shot, not including the gunman. 27

According to the National Safety Council, a public service organization that promotes safety, there were nearly 40,000 gun-related deaths in 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available. About 35 percent were homicides, and more than 60 percent were suicides. The numbers were similar to 2017. 28

Some experts fear suicide rates will rise due to the social isolation, economic upheaval and fear of COVID-19, at the same time gun ownership has climbed.

“The evidence is very strong that having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide,” says David Hemenway, professor of health policy in Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Studies also have shown “more guns lead to more gun accidents,” he says.

Three doctors warned in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine that “the economic and social tsunami caused by COVID-19 . . . could unleash a wave of suicide that is disastrously enabled by the unfettered and growing exposure to household firearms.” 29

The pandemic has had a mixed impact on other types of gun violence. While many cities have experienced a general decrease in crime since stay-at-home orders were implemented, some have seen gun violence hold steady or rise, and more violence is expected as the weather warms and more people spend time outside.

Philadelphia has had a 17 percent increase in homicides compared with 2019 as schools and youth programs were shut down because of the pandemic. “You have teens out on the street with no outlet for education and adult mentorship, and you have poverty exacerbated by the loss of jobs by the economic meltdown,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “It’s a frightening situation. Our police are doing the best they can.” 30


Chronology

 
2019
DecemberChina tells the World Health Organization (WHO) about an unknown illness impacting the city of Wuhan.
2020
JanuaryThe U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms the first known COVID-19 case in the United States. … Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia introduce the Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act in Congress, calling for a federal gun licensing system, universal background checks and a ban on sales to civilians of military-style assault weapons, among other measures.
MarchWHO declares COVID-19 a global pandemic. … U.S. government declares national emergency, as the coronavirus spreads and the economy goes into freefall. … FBI reports record 3.7 million background checks for would-be gun buyers. … National Rifle Association announces it will lay off employees and cut salaries due to the pandemic.
AprilVirginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signs gun control legislation, a year after a gunman killed 12 in a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building. … Students Demand Action, a group campaigning for gun control, begins online student voter registration drive. … Armed protesters enter Michigan’s Capitol building to denounce the state’s stay-at-home order.
MayEverytown for Gun Safety recruits faith leaders to help support candidates who back gun control measures. … U.S. Supreme Court decides the case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York is moot. The case challenged a New York City law on the transport of firearms, which the city subsequently changed. … After Minneapolis police kill African American George Floyd, protests, some violent, and looting rock major cities around the country. An estimated 1.7 million guns are sold as fears of civil unrest rise.
JuneSupreme Court declines to hear 10 gun-related cases, including whether gun owners have the right to carry a handgun outside their home and whether states can ban assault rifles.
  

Footnotes

[1] Dalvin Brown, “Americans are loading up on guns and ammo in the wake of race protests,” USA Today, June 3, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yadsh4f9.

[2] Richard A. Oppel Jr., “For Some Buyers With Virus Fears, the Priority Isn’t Toilet Paper. It’s Guns,” The New York Times, March 16, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/wysjwqk.

[3] Kevin Johnson and Devon Link, “Pandemic-fueled surge in gun sales overwhelms FBI background check system; dealers urged to wait on sales,” USA Today, May 6, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ybzmby4t.

[4] Emily Czachor, “U.S. Gun Sales Spike Amid Pandemic and Protests,” Newsweek, June 4, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yaex5h99.

[5] Nate Cohn, “Wave of New Polling Suggests an Erosion of Trump’s Support,” The New York Times, June 9, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y9oywtq7.

[6] Uri Berliner, “ ‘Democrats are Good for Gun Sales’ ”: Guess What Happened After Trump’s Election,” NPR, March 31, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9f8rw8t.

[7] E.A. Gjelten, “Red Flag Laws: Constitutionality and Enforcement of Extreme Risk Protection Orders,” Criminal Defense Lawyer, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y73pkk8d; Josh Dawsey, “Trump abandons proposing ideas to curb gun violence after saying he would following mass shootings,” The Washington Post, Nov. 1, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/yy525jto.

[8] Ryan W. Miller, “Virginia Gov. Northam signs host of gun control bills into law months after Richmond rally,” USA Today, April 10, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/vjlu7ku.

[9] Syd Stone, “Elizabeth Warren introduces sweeping gun safety bill with licensing, universal background checks, and an assault-weapons ban,” The Boston Globe, Jan. 30, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y8h9gnk3.

[10] Maya T. Prabhu, “Georgia bill would block ‘red flag’ orders that require surrender of guns,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jan. 14, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yayhbqyu.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Hogan, “Michigan democrats want Capitol security check, guns banned at state buildings,” WZZM13.com, May 19, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ya4q7hck.

[13] Daniel Villarreal, “Michigan Closes Down Capitol In Face Of Death Threats From Armed Protesters Against Gov. Whitmer,” Newsweek, May 14, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ybadgszx.

[14] Sarah Rahal and Craig Mauger, “Armed protesters in Michigan Capitol have lawmakers questioning policy,” Detroit News, May 2, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y94gklbf.

[15] Villarreal, op. cit.

[16] Rahal and Mauger, op. cit.

[17] Fredreka Schouten, “A Bloomberg-backed gun control group launches online effort to register 100,000 young voters,” CNN, April 7, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ybxr82hv.

[18] Elana Schor, “Gun control group starts faith-driven push ahead of election,” Detroit News, May 12, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y7yf2gbc.

[19] Tim Mak, “Secret Recording Reveals NRA’s Legal Troubles Have Cost The Organization $100 Million,” NPR, April 21, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y7vz9q2x; Bobby Allyn, “NRA Plans Layoffs, 20% Cut In Pay For Employees Due To Coronavirus’ Economic Hit,” NPR, March 24, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y9lbseve.

[20] “NRA announces it’s moving its annual meeting of members to Springfield in September,” KY3, June 9, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y7ysdtqo; Lisa Marie Pane, “NRA cutting staff and salaries amid coronavirus pandemic,” ABC News, May 3, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yapvnrko.

[21] Pane, Ibid.

[22] Katherine Schaeffer, “Share of Americans who favor stricter gun laws has increased since 2017,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 16, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/velandu.

[23] Aamer Madhani, “Trump campaigns as a 2nd Amendment warrior,” CBS Austin, Feb. 11, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ya4vkaun.

[24] “The Biden Plan To End Our Gun Violence Epidemic,” JoeBiden.com, https://tinyurl.com/uloye6u.

[25] Ariane de Vogue and Devan Cole, “Supreme Court avoids new Second Amendment ruling, dealing blow to gun rights advocates,” CNN, April 27, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y9vkutfn.

[26] Tucker Higgins and Dan Mangan, “Supreme Court decides not to hear big gun-rights cases, dealing blow to Second Amendment activists,” CNBC, June 15, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ya73z3l2.

[27] “May Had 59 Mass Shootings, The Most Since 2013, According To The Tracker,” The Trace, June 1, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y9f36yr3.

[28] “Guns,” National Safety Council, undated, accessed May 22, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y7oaj6s2.

[29] Rebekah Mannix, Lois K. Lee and Eric W. Fleegler, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Firearms in the United States: Will an Epidemic of Suicide Follow?” Annals of Internal Medicine, April 22, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y86kthjt.

[30] Erin Donaghue, “Coronavirus and gun violence: Mayors fight a double public health crisis,” CBS News, April 27, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y84lha7q.

About the Author

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer in Florida.

 

Document APA Citation
Ladika, S. (2020, July 3). Gun control. CQ researcher. http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqr_ht_gun_control_2020
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqr_ht_gun_control_2020
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