Editor’s Note: John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization working to end gun violence and build safer communities. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Much is still unknown about Covid-19, but one thing is certain: Owning a gun does not make you any safer from it. But that didn’t stop the Trump administration from caving to the firearm industry by treating gun store workers just like the real frontline responders– police, doctors, nurses– in new advisory guidelines issued to state and local officials that designate who should be allowed to keep working during the pandemic.
It is both shameful and nonsensical for the federal government to deem gun stores essential, a special privilege that millions of other shuttered small businesses can only dream about. The argument for keeping grocery stores and pharmacies open during a pandemic is self-evident. People need to be able to access food and medication in order to preserve public health, so it’s worth the risk of allowing people to congregate – while observing social distancing.
This calculus clearly doesn’t apply to firearm sales. In fact, when you examine the evidence, it’s clear that allowing gun stores to stay open in a time of self-quarantine and heightened stress will likely send more people to the hospital just when our medical system is already under unprecedented strain.
We only need to look back to the 2008 financial crisis for indications that the economic conditions created by coronavirus could be deadly. Researchers estimate that 4,750 more Americans died by suicide during the Great Recession than would have been expected otherwise, and they attribute some of this increase to rising unemployment. Given that this week’s unemployment numbers already dwarf what we saw then, there is good reason to believe that the risk of suicide will rise, and that’s even more true for people with easy access to a gun – about half of all suicide deaths are with a firearm, according to CDC data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. All told, an average of 22,926 people die by gun suicide every year.
But firearm suicide is not the only form of gun violence that needs to be considered when factoring in whether to keep gun stores open. At least 4.6 million American children live in homes with unsecured guns, and many of those children are now confined to those homes, with lots of free time on their hands – and lots of new worries. Recently, a 13-year-old in New Mexico was killed when his cousin allegedly shot him with a gun that the cousin said he brought home to “protect” himself during the pandemic. In addition, parents – especially parents who own guns – should be aware that research has shown a link between social isolation and suicide in young people.
Those victims of domestic violence who are now staying inside with their abusers around the clock are also at greater risk. Cities across the country are seeing dramatic spikes in domestic violence calls. For instance, as coronavirus cases increased in Tennessee, the Nashville YWCA reported a 55% increase in calls during the first two weeks of March when compared to last year during the same time. And again, the combination of more domestic violence incidents and more guns in circulation is cause for alarm. When a firearm is present in domestic violence situations, women are five times more likely to be killed, according to a study.
The first step to reducing these types of gun violence is ensuring that every gun in every home is securely stored. That’s why the organization I represent, Everytown for Gun Safety, is aggressively promoting our Be SMART program, which encourages gun owners to keep their firearms locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition.
Unfortunately, such common sense efforts to prevent avoidable tragedies are being undermined by the gun industry, which jumped at the opportunity to exploit the pandemic for every last cent. On the marketing front, they’ve been using time-tested fear tactics to drive up gun sales. These days, the National Rifle Association’s social media feeds read like something out of a dystopian fantasy novel. According to the gun lobby, we live in “a dangerous world” of “gun-grabbing politicians” and “reported prisoner furloughs,” a world where “the 2nd Amendment is often all we have.”
In a new low, the NRA is using this deadly Covid-19 pandemic to advance its radical agenda and sell more guns. And while the group argues that closing gun stores violates the Second Amendment, there’s nothing in the Constitution that says the Second Amendment is a super-right above other rights, or that requires gun stores to be singled out for special treatment during the most serious public health emergency of the last century.
On the political front, lobbyists for the gun industry have leaned hard on public officials to let gun stores stay open, and the Trump administration folded like a house of straw. This should come as no surprise – in 2016, the NRA spent more than $30 million on President Donald Trump’s election effort, making the organization the single largest independent outside spender to his campaign.
In the years since, Trump has faithfully followed the gun lobby’s lead and refused to take major action to prevent gun violence.
Luckily, the Trump administration’s guidelines for essential businesses that should stay open during the pandemic are only advisory, and state and local officials are free to do what’s best for their residents. They should consider that with every additional day that gun stores stay open, the number of unsecured guns in American homes will rise. The risk of those guns falling into the wrong hands is one we simply can’t afford.
It’s time for America’s lawmakers to hold gun stores to the same rules as other nonessential businesses, so our nation’s doctors and nurses can focus on what is truly essential: fighting the coronavirus.