Fears of unrest, early release of prisoners, government overreach, even government collapse, led an estimated 110,000 Californians to purchase firearms in the early months of the pandemic, say UC Davis researchers.

The numbers of gun buyers — including more than four in 10 who were new gun owners — represent only 2.4% of total California gun owners, but the study shines a bright light on the unease, worry, fear and frustration some Californians feel months into a year defined by a public health crisis, isolation, social and economic upheaval and a historically volatile presidential election.

The findings come from the 2020 California Safety and Wellbeing Survey of 2,870 California residents conducted by the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center and Violence Prevention Research Program.

The UC Davis team writes that its findings add to research “that suggests the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to lessen its spread have compounded the burden of violence-related harms” already being felt by individuals and the broader community.

“Violence is a significant public health problem which touches the lives of far more people than is typically recognized,” writes study authors and UC Davis researchers UC Davis professor Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, analysts Amanda Aubel, Julia Schleimer, Rocco Pallin and Garen Wintemute, director of UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program, and an emergency room physician at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

The pandemic’s impacts go far beyond the virus’ transmission, Stanford public health expert David Studdert told the Los Angeles Times. Studdert was not involved with the survey but commented on its findings to the Times.

The increase in gun sales coupled with the various anxieties driving the purchases and owners’ behavior “are among the pandemic’s many shadow effects,” Studdert told the Times. “This study starts to identify those.”

Worry over personal safety during the pandemic dominated the responses. The most common reason those surveyed bought firearms was worry about lawlessness — a factor cited by nearly 76 percent of those who responded. Early prison releases to help curb the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations was a factor for 56 percent of those surveyed. Nearly four in 10 — 38% — said they were girding against a “government collapse.”

More broadly, firearm owners had the largest percentage increases in their level of worry about multiple types of violence during the pandemic compared to those who don’t own weapons and those whose gun purchases were not related to the pandemic.

Additionally, the percentage of respondents who said they were somewhat worried or very worried about falling victim to violence increased significantly during the pandemic, the researchers found.

The gun purchases are part of a larger national trend, the UC Davis authors write, citing recent research that suggests more than 2.1 million gun purchases during the first three months of the pandemic.

That unease played out in some Californians’ concerns over the looming election and civil unrest. Reports of stockpiling guns, food and ammunition have followed, a trend explored in a story last week in The Sacramento Bee.

In conservative Shasta County, Patrick Henry Jones’ gun store, Jones’ Fort in Redding, has had one of its busiest summer seasons in its 58 years in business.

Brisk sales, shortages and struggles to restock items marked the last few months, Jones told The Bee.

“It’s a lot of new buyers and there’s just a lot of nervousness. First you had the riots. You had COVID kind of starting it (demand) a little bit, and the riots really picked things up; and now as the riots have kind of stabilized a little bit, there’s great uncertainty in the election,” Jones said.

“You can really tell there’s a tenseness in the air here in the North State,” Jones continued. “People are very nervous about this election. We’re fearing it’s not going to go very smoothly. … There’s all kinds of talk about unrest and it just makes people nervous and that creates buying.”

But the study’s authors said with the purchases, the numbers of new buyers and relaxed gun storage practices come a heightened possibility of gun-related harm including accidental shootings involving children, gun violence against women and suicides.

Though nearly two-thirds of firearm owners surveyed said they stored their weapons unloaded and locked away, a smaller percentage — about 18% — said they reported storing at least one firearm less securely. About a third of those owners said the pandemic led to the change. But of those, slightly more than half lived in households with children or teenagers.

The UC Davis team said its research aims to support strategies that tackle what the authors called the “enduring psychological trauma associated with exposure to and worry about violence.”


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