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Law enforcement officers escort people to safety at the scene of a shooting in Northwest Washington, on April 22, 2022. Guns were used in 79 per cent of murders and just over half of suicides across the United States in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showed.YURI GRIPAS/The New York Times News Service

Gun violence in the United States has reached its worst level in more than 25 years, with the rate of firearm homicide rising by 35 per cent in the first year of the pandemic, the U.S. public health agency reported Tuesday.

Guns were used in 79 per cent of murders and just over half of suicides across the United States in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showed. Nearly 5,000 more people were murdered by guns in 2020 than the previous year, with increases in both urban and rural areas, among men and women and across all age groups, Thomas Simon, associate director for science at the CDC’s division of violence prevention, said Tuesday.

The greatest increase in the rate of firearm homicide was among Black men between 10 and 44 years old. But more people die every year from firearm-related suicide, with the biggest rise among young Indigenous men. The largest number of such deaths are among older white males.

What has worried scholars and health care providers alike is the persistence of high gun-violence rates beyond the social dislocations from the pandemic’s first year. “Trauma related to violence in general, as well as involving substance abuse including alcohol, domestic violence and assault, have continued to be on the increase,” said Kartik Prabhakaran, chief of trauma and acute-care surgery at Westchester Medical Center, just north of New York City. Research published by Westchester earlier this year found that gun deaths now account for more years of U.S. life lost than car crashes.

The Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit, tracked a further rise in gun deaths in 2021. Numbers from the first four months of this year are in line with 2020.

“Every one of those lives lost has a ripple effect of families dealing with ongoing trauma and communities dealing with the extraordinary cost of gun violence,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director at Giffords Law Center, an organization dedicated to fighting gun violence.

“And we see these retaliatory cycles of violence where injuries and deaths lead to more injuries and death. It’s a terrible situation.”

Although the U.S. Congress has proved unable to pass significant legislation to control guns, “it’s impossible to look at this data and think anything other than we desperately need to take action,” including at local levels, Mr. Skaggs said.

The last time gun violence was this serious, the United States was gripped by an epidemic of crack cocaine.

Then, beginning in the early 1990s, gun-violence rates fell for two decades in what criminologists called a “great crime drop.” It was a “miracle” that gave new life to the country’s cities, said scholar Philip Cook, who has studied guns in the United States for decades. He pointed in particular to a “renaissance in places like Harlem or the Bronx.”

“It’s discouraging to think we might have lost that again,” he said.

Prof. Cook, an emeritus scholar at Duke University who has co-authored multiple books on gun crime, says the social unrest, and the defund-police movement, which arose after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, cannot be overlooked.

Homicide investigations declined and police laid charges in fewer cases. Officers were “backing off on their normal level of engagement on patrol. This kind of disengagement by the police is surely contributing,” he said.

The National Rifle Association said blame belongs with wrong-headed policies.

“As communities across the country chose to defund law enforcement, elect soft-on-crime prosecutors, prematurely release dangerous prisoners and institute no-cash bail, no one should be surprised to see an uptick in violent crime,” spokesman Lars Dalseide said in a statement.

The pandemic also brought a spike in gun purchases, with millions of Americans becoming first-time gun owners.

COVID-19 created its own form of upheaval, with lockdown measures that strained social ties and left people isolated. “The loss of social cohesion and social control was a big factor,” said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Still, he said, “the important question is really not what’s causing this, but what can help.” Regional approaches to gun control have struggled, because guns can so easily be transported from elsewhere. Chicago, for example, has seen serious gun violence despite strict laws.

Other approaches have shown better results, including better partnerships between communities and law enforcement, improved police tactics, greater provision of mental health care services – even summer jobs for young people.

More vigilance in investigating gun violence against people involved in other illegal activity, such as dealing drugs, is also needed, Prof. Pollack said. His research shows that 47 per cent of gun offenders have themselves been wounded by gunfire.

There are “an awful lot of young guys walking around Chicago who are armed up because they’re scared of each other,” he said. “They’re not evil people.”

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