Guns and the Virus: Ending Premature Deaths

Parallel plagues are infecting what feel like a far from “perfect Union”.

  • Approximately 40,000 deaths were caused by firearms in 2018, and according to Gallop 30%, or 70 million US adults own guns.
  • 150,000 or more will die from covid-19 in 2020, and the CDC estimates there are 10X more infections than actually tested positive, or 30 million

These are big numbers and represent parallel US public health crises. We are aware of covid infections but gun violence is not often positioned as health related. Yet:

“Gun violence is a leading contributor to premature death in the United States. Firearm fatalities are a critical public health issue as they are largely preventable.” — Pew Research Center

While premature gun deaths and covid deaths are both preventable, they affect the US population in different ways.  States with high gun death rates tend to have low covid-19 death rates as indicated by the downward sloping trendline in the chart below.

Covid-19 Death Rates Compared to Firearm Death Rates 2014-2018

Public data show that geography and demographics affects covid-19 death rates, and these factors differ for firearm suicide victims versus firearm homicide victims, as well.

States in the upper left section of the next chart have high firearm suicide rates but they have low covid-19 death rates.  For reference, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, and West Virginia have lost over 0.06%, or over 6 out of every 10,000, residents to gun suicide from 2014 to 2018. 

Covid-19 Death Rates Compared to Firearm Suicide Death Rates 2014-2018

Firearm suicides account for 2/3rds of all firearm deaths and explain the “negative” part of the relationship between these twin health crises. 

Demographic and geographic factors further illustrate the trends:

  • 86% firearm suicide victims are White Americans but covid death rates are low in above average white populations, such as Wyoming and Montana, feeding the negative relationship in the chart
  • Low density geographies, where 50% or more of the residents must travel 1 mile or more to get to a supermarket, have low covid-19 death rates, again feeding the negative relationship 

And, yes, they are all related.  The positive association between firearm suicide and distance to supermarket is no joking matter.

Turning to firearm homicide victims, states with high firearm homicide death rates also have high covid-19 death rates, as reflected in the upward sloping trendline in the next chart.  For reference, District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have all lost over 0.04%, or over 4 out of every 10,000, residents to gun homocide from 2014 to 2018.

Covid-19 Death Rates Compared to Firearm Homocide Death Rates 2014-2018

To help explain this upward trend — buried in the overall relationship shown above — consider the demographics of gun homicide victims: the CDC reports that Black Americans make up 58% of firearm homicide victims though they are 13% of the US population.  And, as is widely shown in public data high percentage Black populations have disproportionately high covid-19 death rates,
feeding a positive relationship.

Actionable public health policies that help communities lower premature deaths associated with these health risks are needed. 

  • Were your doctor to ask if you have a gun at your annual checkup and confirm, if so, that you’ve got it stored safely, firearm suicides might fall.
  • Were public policies implemented to improve community health care, housing, environmental and educational inequities, the number of firearm homicide victims might decrease.
  • Were Counties and States to mandate 6-foot social distancing and masks in public, covid-19 deaths might lessen through the balance of 2020.

As tragic as the covid pandemic has been — and remains — lessons from the data can and should be acted upon — “in Order to form a more perfect Union”.

Ref. CDC, Pew Research Center, Gallop, Preamble to US Consititution

Shining a Light on Data