The year of the pandemic was also the year of the gun. Shootings took off in almost every city, large and small. New York saw shootings double, and nationally, non-suicide gun deaths jumped about 25%, according to the independent Gun Violence Archive.
At the same time, gun sales were up, too. In fact, 2020 marked the best year for gun sales — ever. The rush for firearms began in the spring, with the first Coronavirus lockdowns, and continued into the summer as TV screens were filled with images of Black Lives Matter protests, pro-police counter-protests, anti-mask rallies, and even looting.
By the end of the year, at least 20 million guns were sold legally, up from about 12.4 million in 2019.
Cause and effect? Experts who study this say Not So Fast.
"It's a real challenge to try and disentangle the role of any one single potential cause," says Julia Schleimer, with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. "It's particularly challenging during the pandemic," with variables such as mass unemployment and closed schools.
Nevertheless, Schleimer and her colleagues are trying to parse out the effect of all those new guns. Their study of the initial boom in purchases — an estimated 2.1 million extra sales from March to May — concluded there was an association between short-term surges in sales and shootings.
But as the year progressed, Schleimer says that statistical relationship faded.
"We know that there's a strong link between more guns and more gun violence," she says, "but during this pandemic and in our analysis here, that link is less clear."
Setting aside the question of sales, though, there does seem to be evidence that guns were more present in daily life last year — especially during crimes.
"All of a sudden, the number of assaults with guns spiked a lot," says Rob Arthur, a data scientist and independent journalist. In a recent article for the Intercept, he pointed to an increase in the ratio of violent crimes that involved guns to those that didn't.
"That suggested to me that there was some kind of substitution going on," Arthur says. "People who were committing assaults had access to guns more in 2020 than they did before. And so they they were essentially getting upgraded to a worse crime, assaulting someone with a gun, whereas before they might have done it without a gun."
It may be a leap, though, to assume those shooters were part of last year's wave of gun buyers. Mandatory background checks bar felons and other disqualified people from buying guns in stores, and past research shows most guns used in crimes are not newly purchased.
But established patterns may not apply to 2020.
Guns were bought by a much broader cross-section of Americans last year, and the firearms industry estimates 40% were first-time buyers.
"Black gun ownership is way up, Asian gun ownership is way up, Hispanic gun ownership is way up," says Cam Edwards, the editor of BearingArms.com. "So we've seen a democratization... where Americans who never before would have considered exercising that right have now embraced it."
For some, this "democratization" of gun sales is a matter of exercising a civil right. But it's also likely that the broadening of firearm ownership was driven by people who simply decided, during a turbulent year, that they needed a gun.
Whatever the reasons, it means 8 million new guns are now in the possession of people who potentially have less experience handling them.
"I think it's on the mind of a lot of Second Amendment advocates," says Edwards. "We want them to get the education and the training that gun owners should have, and that's been difficult," because of COVID-19. "What I've seen is that concealed-carry classes are full. They're booked up months in advance."
At the same time, safety training is no guarantee that people will handle their firearms responsibly — or store them safely.
In recent years, police have sounded the alarm about a growing problem of unsecured guns stolen from cars, especially in states with more permissive carry laws. Data for 2020 are still being compiled, but there are early signs the problem continued last year, possibly compounded by a new group of people carrying guns because they felt unsafe during the pandemic and civil unrest. When legal guns are stolen, they're more likely to end up being used in crimes, or by youths.
But the University of Denver's Trent Steidley, who studies the sociology of firearms in America, says it's too early to conclude that the increase in the overall supply of legal guns last year led to more guns used in crimes — especially when you look at the last decade.
"We've sold a lot of guns since 2008. And year-over-year, until 2020, we saw crime rates declining," he says. "I don't think 2020 is going to settle this."
A one-year spike isn't enough to prove anything in criminology, he says. But the spike may not be over: Initial background-check statistics suggest gun sales have continued at near-record levels into January and February of 2021.