Social isolation

Attempts to stop the pandemic have altered and restricted social interactions for nearly two years and forced people to rely heavily on their phones, tablets and laptops for interpersonal communication. The loosening of social ties has fostered incivility and disorder, creating fertile ground for armed violence.

Older teenagers and young adults commit most homicides.This cohort of Americans has become more susceptible to pandemic-related disruptions in social interactions and the decline of informal social control networks. For them, armed violence has often become the default choice for resolving conflicts.

The effects of COVID on schools and the use of public spaces were even more troubling. At all levels of education, distance learning was the norm. Consequently, students had limited contact with their professors and almost none with their fellow students.

Retaliation and social media

The isolation and social distancing that had already reduced face-to-face encounters with others was reducing opportunities to undertake the peaceful and measured social interactions needed to resolve conflicts, confrontations, and disputes. COVID has weakened the neighborhood immunity needed to prevent the contagious spread of gun violence.

Gun violence erupts within social networks made up of people who live in the same neighborhoods and frequent the same shops, schools and places of worship. The shooters and the victims are the same young men in these neighborhoods. Violence can erupt spontaneously during episodes of perceived disrespect. Notably, as COVID limited the reach of communication within the confines of social media platforms, it made tense exchanges harder to resolve and umbrage harder to quell.

Electronic provocations travel instantaneously. They are easily misinterpreted and fueled, leaving no time for face-to-face de-escalation or reconciliation.

Possession of firearms

Guns make violent attacks more deadly in a similar way to how pre-existing conditions make COVID more deadly. Americans bought 18.9 million guns in 2021, the second highest annual total on record. Ghost guns can be ordered online and assembled at home with untraceable parts. The number of guns recovered by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has increased from approximately 7,100 in 2019 to over 8,700 in 2020. Thousands of recovered guns purchased in 2020 have been used to commit crimes soon after they were purchased, some even the day after they were sold.

Distrust of government

Reduced trust in government and other institutions, such as the police and courts, has also contributed to the increase in homicides. As the pandemic began to swell, George Floyd was murdered. Among other reforms, the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement called for a shift of public resources from police departments to social service agencies. Calls for defunding the police have left officers demoralized and estranged from residents. This undermined their effectiveness and confidence in engendering the willingness of residents to offer crucial support and cooperation in the co-production of neighborhood safety.

Disenchantment with the government, particularly the criminal justice system, has also increased, especially given police abuse captured on body and cellphone cameras. Lack of respect for the criminal justice system has led to disregard for the law, less cooperation with police, lower solve rates for shootings and homicides, and diminished authority and power of the system to deter future violent crimes.

The pandemic has prompted Americans to become more disillusioned with the government and less inclined to participate in interventions to slow the progression of shootings and homicides.

Economic slowdown and social inequalities

After initially downplaying the pandemic, the country’s leaders have responded with pervasive lockdowns, which have dramatically altered American life. These changes included quarantines, bankruptcies and business closures, layoffs, unemployment, and lower incomes for those already in the lowest socioeconomic strata: poor young men of color. Higher-income, better-educated workers — white-collar workers — remained employed and could work from home.

Struggling with abandonment and facing little prospect of fiscal recovery, poor young men have suffered disproportionately from the economic downturn, isolation and despair associated with the pandemic, increasing their frustration, bitterness and propensity to commit violent crimes. For centuries, social inequalities have spawned violence around the world. It continues to do so in the United States as the pandemic rages on.

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