Gun-related homicide surged in the pandemic

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In addition to everything else going on during the first year of the pandemic, the United States saw a record number of gun-related deaths in 2020.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearm deaths in the U.S. rose from just under 15,000 in 2019 to nearly 20,000 in 2020 -- a 35% increase.

The firearm homicide rate in 2020 was the highest recorded in over 25 years, according to the CDC's Vital Signs report.

In 2020, the firearm homicide rate was 6.1 per 100,000 people — up from 4.6 a year earlier. Nearly 80% of all homicides in 2020 involved firearms, according to the report.

"These findings underscore the importance of comprehensive approaches that can stop violence now and prevent future deaths," Dr. Debra Houry, the acting principal deputy director of the CDC, told NPR.

Deaths were up in both urban and rural areas, particularly in parts of the country with high poverty rates. The report indicates that counties with the highest poverty level had firearm homicide rates 4.5 times higher than counties with the lowest poverty level.

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Homicides increased across all age groups and genders, but the largest increase was among Black males ages 10 to 24, according to the report. Among females, the highest rates and largest increases were among those who were Black, aged 10 to 24.

"Young persons, males, and Black persons consistently have the highest firearm homicide rates, and these groups experienced the largest increases in 2020. These increases represent the widening of long-standing disparities in firearm homicide rates," the report states.

CDC officials believe stress caused by the pandemic -- whether from job loss, financial strain, or social isolation -- could be factors in the spike.

"Several explanations have been proposed, including increased stressors (e.g., economic, social, and psychological) and disruptions in health, social, and emergency services during the COVID-19 pandemic; strains in law enforcement-community relations reflected in protests over law enforcement use of lethal force; increases in firearm purchases; and intimate partner violence," the report states.

The pandemic might have exacerbated existing social and economic stressors that increase risk for homicide, particularly among certain racial and ethnic communities, the CDC added.

"Longstanding systemic inequities and structural racism have resulted in limited economic, housing, and educational opportunities associated with inequities in risk for violence and other health conditions among various racial and ethnic groups," the report states.

The CDC says the report reinforces the need for communities to implement comprehensive violence prevention strategies to address physical, social, and structural conditions that contribute to violence and disparities.