Gun deaths in the U.S. spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is driving this evil scourge?
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Bad things come in threes, the old saying goes. Yet, for those in America, mass-shooting tragedies seem to come in tens, dozens…and now hundreds.
Since the start of the year, more than 200 mass shootings—an event where four or more persons are injured or killed—occurred in the United States. Before the tears of loved ones dry from a previous massacre, another one occurs. There is never enough time to grieve or process any of these tragedies before the next.
On May 24, there was the 18-year-old gunman that stormed into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two teachers—the deadliest U.S. school shooting in nearly a decade. That took place just seven days after one was killed and five wounded in a Taiwanese church in Irvine, California—which was just days after the incident in Buffalo, New York, where 10 were killed in a racially motivated attack.
While mass shootings have been a longstanding problem in the nation, the coronavirus pandemic made matters much worse.
Gun violence increased by more than 30 percent in America during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by Penn State College of Medicine researchers. The researchers said that stress, domestic violence, lack of social interactions and greater access to firearms might have contributed to the increase.
U.S. firearm sales reached a record 22.8 million in 2020, which is about 1.9 million per month. The number was similar in 2021 with 19.9 million sold for the year.
Now that the pandemic is winding down and people are returning to work and other normal activities, another problem is arising—a significant uptick in violent critical incidents, including mass shootings in workplaces, public spaces and schools.
The United Nations stated the coronavirus pandemic “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis.” For America, the most gruesome and tragic consequence of that crisis is the staggering number of cases of mass shootings.
So the coronavirus pandemic has enflamed America’s mass-shooting epidemic. While one is caused by a literal virus, the other is a social sickness.
Viewing mass shootings and gun violence through the lens of a disease outbreak reveals why this violent scourge plagues America.
Each mass killing involving a teenage shooter prompts educators to lead staff discussions on how they might respond differently when confronted with what they can do better.
Robert Bardwell, director of school counseling for Tantasqua Regional High School in Fiskdale, Massachusetts, said the shooting in upstate New York shaped how he handled a threat assessment. He told staff, “Dot our i’s, cross our t’s because I don’t want to be on the news in a year, or five years, saying that the school didn’t do something that we should have to prevent this.”
Yet being able to catch the red flags is growing increasingly difficult—especially with the mental burden COVID-19 put on students.
A surge in student mental health needs, combined with staff shortages and widespread episodes of misbehavior and violence, has put extraordinary strain on school counselors and psychologists. How can teachers and administrators adequately screen for those who might show potential for violence?
Even when teens are flagged as potentially violent, it does not stop the spread of the social sickness.
When the accused shooter in Buffalo, Payton Gendron, was asked in spring 2021 by a teacher at his Conklin, New York, high school about his plans after graduation, he responded that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide, according to law enforcement. The comment resulted in state police being called and a mental health evaluation at a hospital, where he claimed he was joking and was cleared to attend his graduation.
“I get that schools are [largely] still safe. And I believe that,” said Mr. Bardwell, who is also executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. “But it also feels like there’s more and more kids that are struggling. And some of those kids who struggle might do bad things.”
Childhood depression and anxiety were on the rise for years before the pandemic, experts say, and the school closures and broader social lockdowns during the pandemic exacerbated the problems. The return to in-person classes has been accompanied by soaring numbers of school shootings, according to experts who say disputes are ending in gunfire as more students bring weapons to school. Teachers say disrespect and defiance have increased. Tempers are shorter and flaring faster.
“The tagline I would go with is the kids are not all right,” said Erich Merkle, a psychologist for Akron Public Schools in Ohio, a district of about 21,000 students that he said is dealing with an increase in student depression, anxiety, suicidality and substance use, as well as aggression and violence, among other behavioral problems. “I can tell you that therapists are struggling.”
Yet this goes well beyond teenagers. Adults are also struggling following the pandemic and those who have murderous desires are equally likely to fulfill them. The year 2020 was one of the deadliest on record, with gun-related homicides and non-suicide-related shootings taking about 19,300 lives—a 25 percent increase over 2019. These facts came from nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. It called 2020 “a year of colliding crises.”
How It Spreads
Mass shootings spread very similarly to a literal virus. Experts have long called this type of violent crime “contagious.” The 18-year-old suspected of fatally shooting 10 people in a black neighborhood in Buffalo is a perfect case study. He was another in a long line of “copycat” gunmen carrying out deadlier mass shootings inspired by previous attackers, experts warned.
The shooter had published a racist manifesto on the internet and broadcast the attack in real time on social media platform Twitch, a live video service owned by Amazon.com. Authorities called the mass killing an act of “racially motivated violent extremism.”
Experts say Mr. Gendron was inspired by previous gun massacres, citing recent mass shootings, including the 2015 attack at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a 2018 shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a 2019 attack at a Walmart in a Hispanic neighborhood of El Paso, Texas.
Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama, has studied trends in mass shootings over time. His 2020 study analyzing victim data showed that the “deadliest” shootings—where more than eight people are killed—had doubled in number since 2010, compared to the previous 40 years.
“It’s clearly not just random. They are not people dreaming this up on their own. They are learning it from each other,” Mr. Lankford said.
He added: “They want to be like the previous attacker, who is a role model.”
Mr. Lankford’s study found that the “deadliest” shootings comprised 25 percent of mass public shootings from 1966 to 2009, but from 2010 to 2019 had increased to 50 percent of mass public shootings, in which there was “direct evidence that perpetrator was influenced by another specific attacker or attackers.”
Mr. Lankford said the rise in these copycat mass killings have a specific trend: the gunmen find their inspiration from the personal life details of previous mass shooters. “It’s not repeating the incident that inspires them. It’s the intimate details of their lives that promotes the influence,” he said.
Mr. Lankford said one way to try and combat the rise in such hate crimes is for the media to avoid publishing details of the shooters’ personal lives.
This is the tricky role the media play. Tragedy sells newspapers. So, every time there is another senseless killing, news outlets show wall-to-wall coverage with the gory details. These stories are heartbreaking and unquestionably newsworthy—yet showing more about it could be planting the seeds of the next act.
There is a sad irony here. The journalists often want to extensively report on these events so they never happen again. Yet, in doing so, the scourge of mass shootings continues to spread…
The reason news outlets pump out personal details of the murderers is that people are endlessly fascinated by these questions: What motivates these killers? Why did they do it? They want to make sense of the senseless. The popularity of true-crime documentaries and murder-themed podcasts makes society’s endless fascination clear.
Another way to frame the question is this: Why is there evil in the world? For all of history, people have perpetrated malevolent acts. Think of one of the very first stories in the Bible where Cain killed his brother Abel. Murder has always been among the ugliest expressions of human nature.
Yet what drives human nature is something few realize—and what science and police investigations can never discover. This bedrock fact about humanity is also detailed in the Bible.
Revelation 12:9 shows that Satan “deceives the whole world.” Take those words at face value. Satan has deceived the whole world—and his influence is powerfully strong.
Ephesians 2:2 shows how Satan is able to manipulate and corrupt human nature: “Wherein in time past you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience.”
The devil is the “prince of the power of the air.” Similar to cellular signals beaming across the globe, Satan broadcasts his evil thoughts and moods everywhere on the planet. For would-be killers, he can push them to murderous ends.
Satan’s influence fuels racism, suicidal thoughts, delighting in violence and idolizing murderers. While each mass shooting perpetrator still makes his own decisions—it is the devil who plants the seeds.
Do not misunderstand. Knowing that Satan’s nature drives human nature will not bring back the lives snuffed out in these senseless acts of violence. Yet knowing the devil’s role can help us understand this world and the evil it contains.
It also helps explain why mass shootings have been growing worse and worse over the last years.
Hate-motivated mass shootings and fame-seeking perpetrators have rapidly increased since 2015, according to an analysis by The Violence Project, which tracks mass shootings in the United States.
Consider how the internet magnifies Satan’s abilities as “prince of the power of the air.” He used to only influence one individual at a time—or local groups. Now, with online forums, those with murderous inclinations can find each other and goad one another on.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate and extremist groups, told Reuters that the Buffalo gunman “had a substantial online history in niche, toxic online communities.”
“From what he wrote online, by his own account he was radicalized through participation in these forums,” Susan Corke, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said in an emailed statement.
The SPLC said that even though it had not seen any evidence yet of the gunman’s affiliation to a specific far right or racist group, there were red flags.
“He discussed building up a weapons cache and asked detailed questions about body armor on a Discord channel dedicated to gun culture. He also posted about allegedly killing a cat and dismembering it. He appears to have posted detailed plans for an attack as early as two weeks ago and posted frequently after that about his planning,” Ms. Corke added.
Social media and streaming platforms like Twitch, which said it removed the stream of the shooting after less than two minutes, have grappled with controlling violent and extremist content for years.
The live nature of the broadcasts makes it particularly difficult to moderate as streaming platforms do not have time delays like television broadcasts. Facebook has sought to address the livestream violence issue in 2019 after allowing 17 minutes of a livestream of a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, before taking it down. It now has a one-strike policy that temporarily restricts users after breaking a rule.
Schools are the most important place to look to see where the mass shooting epidemic is headed—and the herculean task educators, counselors and lawmakers have to ensure a safe future for American teens.
Tragically, it is not a pretty picture.
School staff is “100 percent taxed,” said Jennifer Correnti, director of school counseling at Harrison High School in New Jersey, where counselors have been under strain as they help students acclimate after two school years of pandemic learning disruptions.
Suicide risk assessments at schools are up sharply. The 15-year counselor says she has done as many of them in the past three years as she did in the 12 years prior.
She and Erich Merkle both said that they use mass shootings like the one in Buffalo, and another one in which a 15-year-old shot four classmates in Michigan, to discuss how they would have responded.
At Livingston Middle School in rural central California, counselors have conducted suicide prevention lessons in classrooms for years. Pre-pandemic, the lessons would result in about 30 students saying they wanted to see a counselor, said Alma Lopez, the district’s counselor coordinator and one of two counselors at the middle school.
“This year I got 200 kids, which is a quarter of our student population,” she said. “That is such a huge number. I can’t see 200 kids every week. That is just impossible.”
Many of the kids seeking help were sixth graders with issues related to friendships, she said.
Quickly, school staffers made changes, holding as many one-on-one sessions as they could, providing more group lessons on mental health, and putting flyers in every classroom with the suicide prevention hotline number.
They brought back as many activities, clubs and assemblies as they could to help kids connect. And Ms. Lopez said she is constantly reminding her district that more support is needed, a plea echoed by her peers nationwide.
Most states are struggling with mental health support in schools, according to a recent report from the Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of national mental health organizations. In some states, including West Virginia, Missouri, Texas and Georgia, there is only one school psychologist for over 4,000 students, the report says.
Ms. Lopez oversees a caseload of about 400 students at her school in Livingston, California—far more than the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association of one counselor for every 250 students.
“It’s a huge strain right now,” she said. Many students in her school are the children of farmworkers in a community that was hit hard by COVID-19 infections and deaths. She worries about missing something important.
“I think a lot can get lost,” she said. “If we don’t intervene in time, the issues that come with grief are going to be compounded in a big way to create additional challenges.”
Ms. Lopez and other counselors convened a discussion early last week on how to help students process fears related to the Buffalo shooting and whether it was safe to go to the supermarket.
Federal relief money has helped address shortages of mental health professionals at some schools, although some have struggled to find qualified hires or used the aid to train existing staff.
The challenges are compounded by an increase in gun violence on school grounds, said David Riedman, a criminologist and co-founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, which keeps a national tally of instances when a gun is fired at schools.
According to that tally, there were 249 shootings in K-12 schools in 2021, more than twice the number in any year since 2018, when Mr. Riedman began the database. So far this year, there have been 122 shootings.
There is also a notable difference from previous years, he said: Many of the incidents were not planned attacks, but typical disputes that ended in gunfire.
Mental health specialists outside of schools have been feeling the strain, as well, said Mr. Bardwell, referring to his student with a history of mental illness and who spent two weeks this year in an ER waiting to be admitted for psychiatric care.
It highlights the country’s broken health care system, he said, and shows the state does not have enough residential mental health capacity, especially for adolescents.
Richard Tench, a counselor at St. Albans High School in West Virginia, said it’s impossible to refer students who need outside counseling to therapists in his area.
“All our referrals are full. We are wait-listed,” he said. “If the referrals are full, where do we turn?”
Just as God’s Word explains Satan’s role in influencing human nature, it also details the only solution to America’s mass shooting epidemic.
Governments of this world and the people under them want violence to end. They never intended for a mental health crisis. Yet both are powerless to stop the carnage because they do not understand the cause behind it—Satan’s nature.
As the Bible’s author, God knows the root cause of this world’s evils and ills. That is why He commands people to stay away from mob violence: “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Ex. 23:2).
Recall, the devil spreads his murderous attitude on a broad bandwidth—the entire world. God wants individuals to recognize where this attitude lurks, and to stay away.
Proverbs 1 speaks about this plainly: “My son, if sinners entice you, consent you not. If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause: let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit…my son, walk not you in the way with them; refrain your foot from their path: for their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood” (vs. 10-16).
Put this all together. America’s mass shooting epidemic is a spiritual problem. It requires spiritual solutions only our Creator can bring.
God knows about all the senseless killing that has occurred since the beginning of mankind. He also has the ultimate cure for it all. Here is a picture of His plan for all people: “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
This speaks not only about a future world population, but about all those who have lived throughout history—including those ruthlessly massacred.
All of this will come with the arrival of God’s Kingdom—a supergovernment run by God and Jesus Christ. Read How God’s Kingdom Will Come – The Untold Story! for the full Bible picture.
As God has throughout the millennia, He is allowing a short time longer for mankind to see that its ways—and Satan’s ways—do not work.
For a little while longer we will have to endure this “present evil world” (Gal. 1:4)—before God intervenes in world affairs and sets up the Kingdom. For a little while longer, we will have to endure the mass shooting epidemic, while we desperately yearn for the wonderful “world to come” (Heb. 6:5).
At that time, mothers and fathers will never have to bury their tiny children. Teachers will not have to live in fear when instructing their students—and all races can live without the threat of hate.
Then, God will wipe away all tears. May it be soon!
This article contains information from Reuters and The Associated Press.