Semiautomatic handguns are displayed at Duke's Sport Shop on March 25, 2020, in New Castle, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Pushing guns during a pandemic

(RNS) — In the midst of one plague, we are sowing the seeds of another.

As our nation struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, gun sales are surging. Such sales are always seasonal, but according to the FBI’s analysis of data from licensed gun stores, Americans bought 1 million more guns last month than are normally sold at this time of year.

Indeed, the nation’s licensed gun sellers moved more merchandise in March than in any month in recent history, save for January 2013, the month after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the month in which President Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term. According to a Newsy/Ipsos survey, 1 in 20 households has purchased a gun in response to the pandemic.

As bishops of the Episcopal Church, we are concerned that the proliferation of weapons in our society will result not in greater safety, but in greater violence.

The reasons for this surge are easily understood, but they are troubling nonetheless. People fear a breakdown in the social order. People fear that virus-depleted law enforcement agencies will respond more slowly to calls for help. People fear that nonviolent offenders released from prisons where the pandemic is spreading rapidly will turn to crime when they are free.


RELATED: Click here for complete coverage of COVID-19 on RNS


But every gun purchase comes with attendant risk, especially during this time when most U.S. residents are being asked to stay at home.

A 2014 review in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that having a firearm in the home, even when properly stored, triples the risk a resident of the home will die by suicide. This is a particular concern at a time of social isolation and economic uncertainty.  

People protest the National Rifle Association’s influence in national gun control policies. Photo by Josh Lopez/Creative Commons

About 4.5 million women report being threatened by a partner with a gun. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has a firearm. These numbers suggest that women sheltering with gun-owning abusers are in greater danger than ever.

A 2015 study in the Journal of Urban Health estimated as many as 4.6 million children in America live in homes with unsecured guns, and children are home all day now because schools are not in session.

Bishops United Against Gun Violence, the network we represent, supports a number of commonsense gun reforms that enjoy high levels of bipartisan support. Our agenda includes background checks on all gun purchasers, handgun purchaser licensing, restrictions on gun ownership by domestic abusers and safe storage of firearms.

Our country would be a safer place today if these policies were in effect. Yet in this moment of mutual need, we are troubled to find the National Rifle Association stoking fears of social disintegration to sell more guns. The NRA’s aggressive lobbying to keep gun stores open while other businesses are closed, coupled with its litigious response to governors who have not granted them this privileged status, makes it clear, once again, that it values the interest of gun manufacturers over the safety of our country.

Legislation that could help protect lives is long overdue but unlikely to be enacted while Congress is rightly occupied by the COVID-19 pandemic. So we write today not only as advocates, but as pastors, imploring you to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

Just as you take care to protect yourself against infection in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we urge you to protect yourself and your loved ones from circumstances in which gun violence is likely to occur.

If you have a gun in your home, is it properly secured? If your child is visiting other homes, do you know whether a gun is present and whether it is secured?

Are you aware of someone forced to shelter with a potentially violent family member? What can you do to help this person stay safe? Do you know someone suffering from depression that might be heightened by the sense of powerlessness that affects us all during this pandemic? How can you help to ease this isolation?

As advocates, we remain committed to revising our country’s appallingly lax gun laws. We lament the current surge in gun purchases, and we urge you to join us in mitigating the violence that accompanies it through small but courageous acts of attention, compassion and concern.

(Bishops Ian Douglas of Connecticut, Daniel Gutiérrez of Pennsylvania and Steven Miller of Milwaukee are co-conveners of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a network of more than 100 Episcopal bishops that advocates policies and legislation to reduce the number of people in the United States killed or wounded by gunfire. Bishop Mark Beckwith is a founding co-convener. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)