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CDC says firearm-related homicides skyrocketed amid stresses of the pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Something striking happened during the first year of the pandemic. The rate of gun homicides rose to a level that has not been seen in more than a quarter of a century. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is looking into the new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nell, good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are the numbers?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it's not great. It's demoralizing and depressing, in fact. This report looked at homicides and suicides that involved guns from 2019 through 2020. It was just a big analysis, looking across all kinds of different things - age, gender, race, ethnicity - it looked at small towns and big cities, you know, rural areas. And what the researchers found was a striking increase in the gun homicide rate. It's the highest it's been since 1994. So in 2020, it was up 35% compared to the year before. That equates to about 5,000 more deaths in just one year.

INSKEEP: Wow. That's going back to an era when there was way more crime in America. And that's enough deaths that I'm sure it affects every kind of person in America. But are the numbers worse for some people than others?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes. So the largest increase was seen for Black males who were already at a higher risk of gun violence. The gun homicide rate for Black boys and young men aged 10 to 24 was more than 21 times as high as the rate for white boys and men in the same age group.

INSKEEP: Wow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In addition, people living in counties with higher levels of poverty had gun homicide rates that were higher and showed larger increases. But all that said, the gun homicide rate was just up overall in, you know, in cities and rural areas and across all ages and genders.

INSKEEP: Did the stress from the pandemic cause this?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A study like this one can't really tell you the why. There was a lot going on that year. In 2020, for example, there was also a big surge in gun purchases. But when I asked Debra Houry about the potential causes - she's the acting principal deputy director of the CDC - she told me it's notable that the researchers saw higher rates of both gun homicide and gun suicide in places that are dealing with poverty.

DEBRA HOURY: When you look at the pandemic, things like job loss, economic stressors, social isolation, these were already hard-hit communities. And so this could have impacted them more.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says addressing those kinds of stressors with things like housing assistance and, you know, tax credits can actually help prevent gun violence.

INSKEEP: You mentioned suicide there. Let me follow up on that. What does the study say about suicide as opposed to homicide?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the study also looked at guns involved in suicide. And it's worth noting here that most gun deaths in this country are from suicide, not homicide. And what they found is while the overall suicide rate actually went down in 2020, the rate of gun suicides didn't. It didn't change that much...

INSKEEP: OK.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Although it did go up in some groups like Native Americans and Alaska Native males.

INSKEEP: Now, can I just note, it's really interesting and helpful to get this data from the CDC. And I think it's the kind of data that the CDC wasn't allowed to gather once upon a time. How different are things today?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they've always been allowed to gather data. But what they are doing now that's a little different is that Congress loosened an old restriction and provided some funding. So they're now doing research into ways of preventing gun violence that they probably wouldn't have done before. They're funding about 18 new projects, looking at different things.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks so much. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.