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Firearm purchasing and storage during the COVID-19 pandemic
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  1. Vivian H Lyons1,2,
  2. Miriam J Haviland2,
  3. Deborah Azrael3,
  4. Avanti Adhia2,4,
  5. M Alex Bellenger2,
  6. Alice Ellyson2,5,
  7. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar2,6,
  8. Frederick P Rivara2,7
  1. 1Health Behavior and Health Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
  2. 2Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program, Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, Seattle, Washington, USA
  3. 3Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  4. 4Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
  5. 5Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Seattle Children's Research Institute, Seattle, Washington, USA
  6. 6Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
  7. 7Seattle Children's Hospital, Seattle, WA, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Vivian H Lyons, Health Behavior and Health Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA; vlyons{at}uw.edu

Abstract

To better understand motivations behind purchase and storage of firearms during the COVID-19 pandemic, we used Amazon Mechanical Turk to conduct an online survey of individuals who did and did not purchase a firearm since 1 January 2020 in response to COVID-19. The survey was fielded between 1 and 5 May 2020. We asked about motivations for purchase, changes in storage practices and concern for themselves or others due to COVID-19. There were 1105 survey respondents. Most people who purchased a firearm did so to protect themselves from people. Among respondents who had purchased a firearm in response to COVID-19 without prior household firearm ownership, 39.7% reported at least one firearm was stored unlocked. Public health efforts to improve firearm-related safety during COVID-19 should consider increasing access to training and framing messages around the concerns motivating new firearm purchase.

  • firearm
  • descriptive epidemiology
  • public health

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many facets of life in the USA, including firearm purchasing, which appeared to increase dramatically from March to May 2020.1 2 To the extent that firearm purchases resulted in increased firearm access, risk of unintentional injury3 and suicide,4 especially for children,3 5 6 as well as domestic homicide may have increased.7 Changes in firearm storage due to COVID-19-related concerns may also increase the risk of firearm-related injuries for household members if firearms are made more accessible. Additionally, the social disruption, fear of illness and general uncertainty about the pandemic may contribute to worsened mental health and increased risk of suicide and homicide.8 9 Other emergencies are likely to occur in the future (eg, natural disasters, global warming-related food scarcity and housing instability), and the public health community, policymakers and firearm retailers may need to develop tailored interventions that promote safe firearm storage and use during crises to reduce risk of firearm-related injury. While the increase in firearms related to COVID-19 has been well documented,1 2 the motivations for this surge in purchases are not clear. Firearm owners are not a homogeneous group, and understanding the factors associated with recent purchases is necessary to guide the multifaceted efforts at prevention that will be needed to reduce the unintended harms that might occur from the increase in prevalence of firearms in the home. We sought to understand motivations behind firearm purchase and storage during the COVID-19 pandemic to support improved firearm-related safety.

Methods

Using Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) respondents, we surveyed persons who did and did not purchase a firearm in response to COVID-19 since 1 January 2020, stratified by whether or not they previously owned a firearm or currently lived in a firearm-owning household. Respondents had to be over 18 years of age and US residents, as verified by MTurk. The survey was fielded between 1 and 5 May 2020.

The six groups were: (1) prior owners who purchased a firearm in response to COVID-19 (‘prior owners with purchase’), (2) new owners with household firearm ownership who purchased their own firearm in response to COVID-19 (‘new owners with household firearm ownership), (3) new owners without household firearm ownership (‘new owners without household firearm ownership’), (4) prior owners who did not purchase a firearm in response to COVID-19 (‘prior owners without purchase’), (5) non-owners with household firearm ownership (‘non-owners with household firearm ownership’) and (6) non-owners without household firearm ownership (‘non-owners without household firearm ownership’). We excluded responses from participants who did not meet survey validation requirements (online supplemental appendix A).

Survey questions covered six domains: demographics, concern about the COVID-19 pandemic, purchase of consumer goods in response to COVID-19, reasons for firearm purchase in response to COVID-19, firearm storage and familiarity with firearms including firearm training (online supplemental appendix B). Descriptive statistics were used to summarise survey results. Patients and members of the public were not involved in the design, conduct, reporting or dissemination plans of this research.

Results

The analytic sample included 1105 respondents. There were few demographic differences between the six groups. The mean age was 36.5 (range 18–78) years. Respondents were predominantly white (71.5%). Almost half of respondents had a child aged <18 years living in their household (44.8%). Many new owners and non-owners without current household firearm ownership had lived in a firearm-owning home at some point in their lives (41.9% and 21.2%, respectively) (table 1).

Table 1

Participant demographics and concern about COVID-19 by survey group

The primary reason for recent firearm purchase was for protection against people (70.5%). Purchasers reported crime (38.5%), supply chain disruptions (35.3%), health (33.8%) and the economy (27.6%) as the most common COVID-19-specific concerns that contributed to their decision to purchase a firearm. A higher proportion of respondent groups with firearm purchase stocked up on household supplies and home security products and reported concern about the economy and crime as the reason for stocking up than respondent groups without firearm purchase (table 2). Most respondents thought COVID-19 was ‘a big deal’ (68.2%) and reported concern for their family (82.7%), themselves (56.4%) and their friends (52.9%). For respondents who live in a home with another firearm owner, the owner is most often their partner (39.4%) or family member (42.5%) (table 3).

Table 2

Purchasing supplies and firearms during the COVID-19 pandemic

Table 3

Concern about COVID-19

Among prior owners, many reported storing all firearms locked (44.3% prior owners with purchase and 53.7% prior owners without purchase) on 1 January 2020. When they took the survey, 48.1% of prior owners with purchase and 54.2% prior owners without purchase reported storing all firearms locked, indicating almost no change in the overall proportion of prior owners kept all firearms locked. However, 36.5% prior owners with purchase and 5.7% prior owners without purchase reported making some change in their firearm storage primarily to prevent child access (54.4%), reduce risk of mishandling and accidental discharge (38.6%), allow for quick access in case of a robbery, theft or burglary (33.3%) and reduce risk of suicide (28.1%). About 40% of respondents had received some form of firearm safety training in their lifetime, and training was more common among new owners and prior owners (46.9%–62.0%) than non-owners (9.9%–17.6%) (table 4).

Table 4

Change in storage practices and training for firearms in the household between 1 January 2020 and 5 May 2020

Discussion

Our findings suggest that most respondents with a COVID-19-related firearm purchase did so to protect themselves from people and were more likely to have stocked up on other household supplies than respondents who did not purchase a firearm, potentially highlighting broader pandemic purchasing patterns. We found patterns of both increasing and decreasing firearm access in response to COVID-19. For those new owners who brought a gun into a household in which there was not a gun previously (new owners without household firearm ownership), compelling evidence suggests that the household risk of firearm unintentional injury,3 suicide4 and domestic homicide7 increased. The risk could be highest for individuals in households with less restricted firearm access and less firearm familiarity.

While 40% of new owners reported having at least one unlocked gun, new owners reported safer storage practices than prior owners, about half of whom reported at least one firearm was unlocked. Among all prior owners who reported a change in storage behaviour, however, many reported the motivation for the change was to reduce access to children (47.1%), reduce risk of mishandling and accidental discharge (35.3%) and reduce risk of suicide (25.0%), although some reported changes that increased access in case of a robbery, theft or burglary (33.3%)

Among new owners in non-firearm owning households, 42% had never lived in a firearm-owning household and may have little experience or training with guns. New owners without household firearm ownership, unlike new owners with household firearm ownership, do not have the opportunity of asking the firearm owner(s) in their home to provide training or advice on storage and other safety practices. And while the majority of firearm owners reported some lifetime firearm training, less than one-third of new owners recently received training since 1 January 2020.

This study was limited by the use of a non-representative sample, generalisability of MTurk surveys,10 and the high proportion of females suggesting our sample is not representative of most firearm owners.11 Nonetheless, our findings offer important insight into the motivations of persons who purchased firearms in response to COVID-19, findings which can inform public health messaging and improve firearm safety during this pandemic.

Public Health Implications

Public health efforts to improve firearm-related safety during COVID-19 should consider framing firearm-related injury prevention messages around the concerns motivating firearm purchase (eg, crime, supply chain disruptions, health and the economy). Firearm retailers, local governments and departments of public health could also consider providing additional information and incentives during the pandemic for storage and locking mechanisms, as well as mental health resources and firearm safety training options which can be accessed remotely. As almost half of respondents with COVID-19-related firearm purchase reported living with children, a group at particularly high risk,6 messaging should also focus on the importance of reducing child access to firearms. With the continuing pandemic and recent increase in firearm purchasing, there is a critical need to invest in creating or expanding public health campaigns to promote firearm safety and firearm injury prevention strategies that discuss the increased risk of unintentional firearm injuries, suicide and domestic homicide associated with firearm access.

What is already known on the subject

  • There has been an increase in firearm-purchasing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Presence of a firearm in the home increases risk of firearm-related injury and death.

What this study adds

  • This is the first study to assess specific motivations for firearm purchase in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Findings can inform public health messaging to reduce firearm injuries during COVID-19 and other crises.

References

View Abstract

Footnotes

  • Twitter @VivianHLyons

  • Contributors VHL, MJH, DA, AA, MAB, AE, AR-R and FPR were involved in the conceptualisation of this study, and review of survey questions. MH conducted the analysis and VHL drafted the manuscript. All authors contributed to critical revision and review of the submitted manuscript and approved the final version.

  • Funding This work was supported by funds from the State of Washington (no award number) and the FACTS (Firearm Safety Among Children & Teens) Consortium funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (1R24HD087149).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval This study was deemed exempt from the Human Subjects Review Board at the University of Washington as data were de-identified.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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