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2020 Was A Record-Breaking Year For Gun-Related Deaths In The U.S.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On the last day of 2020, at least 20 people were shot and killed in the United States. Among them, one was a teenager in Philly. Another man was killed in San Jose, Calif. A 75-year-old was shot in Richmond, Va. And a man and a woman were found shot dead inside their vehicle in Louisville, Ky. Those deaths end a record-breaking year for gun homicides in America. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a total of at least 19,223 people lost their lives due to gun violence in 2020. That's an almost 25% jump from the year before. We're going to dig into this now with Dr. Sonali Rajan. She is from the Columbia Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence.

Good morning.

SONALI RAJAN: Good morning. Thank you for having me here today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. This was a year that saw a pandemic. People are suffering economic hardship, mental health stress. Is that something that, you know, is being looked into, perhaps the correlation to the pressures of the moment?

RAJAN: Oh, absolutely. So certainly, the collective trauma, grief, economic anxiety, stress that all were exacerbated because of the COVID-19 pandemic - all of that certainly came to a head this past year. And there are a confluence of factors - so many reasons why gun violence increased during 2020.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me what some of those reasons are. I mean, what are you looking into?

RAJAN: So one reason that is almost certainly a contributing factor was the uptick in gun sales. I think in March alone, 2 million guns had been sold. And so we saw this increase in gun sales that persisted throughout 2020. You know, there are different kinds of gun violence. We have mass shootings. We have day-to-day community gun violence. We see suicide by firearms. So some factors may have played a greater role in contributing to the increase of one type of gun violence versus another. But that being said, one of the things that certainly could have played a factor as well is that public resources simply were diverted due to the pandemic - so the work of violence interrupters, social programs and support services not being as readily available.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has also been a year of racial justice protests over police brutality. How does that fit into this? Is there a policing part of this that we should consider?

RAJAN: Yes, absolutely. So police violence in particular is a devastating problem here in the United States. Police officers are three times more likely to fatally shoot a Black individual than a white individual, for example. And we saw this year racism intersecting in a way with gun violence and with the COVID pandemic that really took its toll on Black and brown communities in particular.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are there any other demographic things that jumped out at you? I'm wondering particularly about gender. Have we seen a surge in gender-based violence?

RAJAN: We did see an uptick in domestic violence this past year, largely due to the fact that far more people were home, and there was much more isolation and, as I was mentioning, reductions in availability of support services. And we do see that - in the context of domestic violence in particular that women are disproportionately impacted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here in D.C., we've also seen this big uptick in shootings. And they use things like violence interrupters, which you've mentioned, to try and break that cycle. What works when we're trying to combat this? And why hasn't it been happening?

RAJAN: You know, historically, the conversation around solutions to gun violence have really focused on policies. And there are some really rigorous, excellent scientific evidence that has clearly illustrated that there are policies that would help contribute to reductions in certain types of gun violence - for example, a federal assault weapons ban or tightening background check laws or large-capacity magazine bans. But to get to sort of your question, which I think is really the million-dollar question, is what are the other non-policy-oriented ways in which we could be thinking about the prevention of gun violence? This could include investing in community building programs, violence interrupter programs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's when people go into the community, actually figure out where the violence is coming from and really try to mediate between the different groups to make sure that the temperature gets lowered.

RAJAN: That's part of it. It's also really an investment in the community as well. So I would say that these programs that have shown to be effective are really thinking about the issue not just in the context of preventing the acts of gun violence themselves but also getting to really the root causes of some of this kind of violence. Other examples that kind of go hand in hand with this are efforts to improve housing conditions or to address issues of green space, investing in mental health interventions. So a lot of the work that I do is really looking at school-based gun violence, which is very tied to community violence. And so there are a plethora of solutions from that angle that we could be investing in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What you're describing is that there are federal policies, there are laws that can be enacted that could help curb perhaps the supply of guns and the way that we deal with guns in society. But on a local level, either community-based or in the school, there are things that can be done to target things more specifically. My question is, what do you expect to change with the new federal government coming in and the new Congress, if anything?

RAJAN: I am hoping that President-elect Biden and his administration will prioritize the prevention of gun violence as the public health crisis that it is and, in the vein of what I've just been describing here, that they will see the prevention of gun violence really as an opportunity to address these larger systemic issues.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you look at statistics on gun violence, you see that, pretty much, there is a constant. It fluctuates between 13,000 to 15,000 every year for all the years that I've looked at it - at least the last decade or so. We saw this huge uptick now. But it seems that there is an endemic problem here that really has not been addressed because all the things you're talking about really haven't moved the needle.

RAJAN: For up until just last year, there was no federal funding allocated for the study of the prevention of gun violence. So I continue to be incredibly optimistic about the funds that were allocated most recently in the fiscal year 2021 spending deal - about $25 million - to go towards the study of gun violence prevention and how can we be addressing this issue. But we need so much more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Sonali Rajan, associate professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University.

Thank you very much.

RAJAN: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say Sonali Rajan is an associate professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University. In fact, she is an associate professor of health education at Teachers College, Columbia University.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 3, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
In this report, we incorrectly say Sonali Rajan is an associate professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University. In fact, she is an associate professor of health education at Teachers College, Columbia University.