COVID-19 Hits US But The Nation’s Biggest Threat Lies Elsewhere

Despite a pandemic on their hands, gun violence and its knock-on effect persists throughout the country. Will America ever relinquish their killing machines?

“I’m afraid when I go into public if I accidentally cut someone off in traffic, that a someone will pull a gun on me. It’s a feeling of unease knowing anyone can have a loaded gun on them at any time”. Picture a world where a lack of regulations is more threatening than a pandemic. Konrad Juengling, an American citizen, is all too familiar with the frightening situation the country finds itself unable to escape.

Juengling is a gay rights and political activist who campaigns strongly against the use of guns in America. The activist has become known in America for supporting liberal politicians and ethical consumerism whilst actively working to tackle the issues surrounding gun violence. Gun laws and America are words that have influenced a long running conundrum that remains unsolved. Medical professionals and Journalists alike have begun to explore the ways in which gun violence has become less of a political debate and more of a public health issue.

Figure 1: Konrad Juengling with friend Carrie Parsons whose life was taken at an LA mass shooting, 2017. © Konrad Juengling.

For Juengling, gun violence is not only a topic read about in the news, but a reality that has previously hit close to home on more than one occasion. The lack of regulations surrounding firearms has had a personal impact, including the tragic loss of close friend, Carrie Parsons (pictured left) whose life was taken at an LA mass shooting in 2017 whilst attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival. The gun control advocate also lost his uncle a few years prior to suicide through use of a firearm. An average of 22,926 lives a year will be lost to gun-related suicide – a staggering 61% of the yearly total, reports Giffords Law Center. Mental health access remains a problem across the US, with significant inconsistency across the board. And there appears to be some correlation between the two.

Mental Health Access

Juengling states that mental health access across America is lacking, leaving those who need it without the help they need to “manage their mental health”. Without universal healthcare, America falls behind on the mental health front. Juengling places the blame on this, stating that whilst every country has mentally ill people, the “proliferation and easy access to guns makes acting on mental illness that much easier.” There is a clear correlation between the US’s inability to provide mental health access across the board and its higher level of gun violence in those states affected. Mississippi is a strong example of this.

It’s known to be one of the most dangerous states when it comes to gun violence, with 2017 data showing it had the fourth-highest rate of gun deaths per state, reported Center for American Progress. Additionally, their mental health access remains poor, with an estimated one mental health provider per 820 people living there. The state’s mental health community system came under scrutiny at the end of 2019 when a federal judge claimed it was operating in a way that violated the federal law. Judge Carlton W. Reeves claimed the state had “violated federal civil rights law by not providing mental health patients enough care in their communities”, reported the New York Times. Judge Reeves revealed that a critical service for the community, in which “psychiatrists, nurses and other specialists treat patients with the most severe mental illnesses” covered only 14 of the state’s 82 counties. And often, in those 14 counties, the teams had been problematically understaffed, he said.

Despite its’ poor mental health access, gun violence has remained fairly low throughout the period of the state’s lockdown. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the whole of America. Gun violence is too complex to place the blame on one factor that is mental health. And this is clear for Illinois whose gun violence levels have increased during the pandemic but are known to have lower numbers of mental illness. The state ranks 11th as having “lower prevalence of mental illness and higher rates of access to care for adults”, say Mental Health America. Coronavirus may have moved attention away from gun-related incidents, but whilst the city was told to stay at home, domestic violence surged. And with it, levels of gun violence. Juengling adds, although every country has people who suffer from mental illness, the “proliferation and easy access” to guns make acting on mental health problems, or even anger, that much easier.

Domestic Violence

Konrad Juengling holds the belief that more focus should be placed on who can own, purchase, or operate a gun, including “anyone charged with domestic abuse, stalking, or related crimes”. Worryingly, text messages sent to an Illinois domestic violence hotline dramatically escalated during the city’s lockdown. The hotline saw text messages increase by over 2,000% compared to the same time frame the year prior, in 2019. With a jump from five to 118, the hotline worryingly reiterated the importance of accessing these support networks through the medium of a text messaging service. 5 Chicago spoke with Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network. Pyron reviewed that the increase in text messages only brought home the danger victims of domestic violence find themselves in where it’s too much of a risk to contact the hotline via phone. In her interview, Pyron highlights the unfamiliarity of dealing with an environment during lockdown “where the most dangerous place for a victim is the only place they can go”.

For many, access via text messaging is critical. On March 30, numbers provided by the city showed that the hotline had received 104 calls, the “highest daily volume” in over a year, say 5 Chicago. By the end of April, the weekly number of calls made to a domestic violence hotline in the city had increased from 383 to 549, according to the New York Times. The newspaper revealed that calls to the hotline across Illinois had seen victims seeking advice on “how to keep their partners calm” as well as secretly saving money and establishing code words with children that signal them to ring 911. Women are 21 times more likely to be murdered by a firearm, according to statistics from Giffords Law Center. Although anyone of any gender can fall victim to domestic violence, around six in ten males in the US are gun owners – 61%.

This is compared with 22% of women who claim to be gun owners. The 2017 data revealed by Pew Research Center sadly reiterates the additional dangers for a person experiencing domestic abuse. 100 people die of gun violence each day in America, according to research by Giffords Law Center, and the medical community has long since grown tired with the government’s inability to tackle the matter. Yet, not even a global pandemic can slow the fatality that comes as a result from the easy access to gun purchase and ownership that the US provides.

Whilst gun violence persists, medical attention is required, taking up beds needed for Coronavirus patients in the Intensive Care Unit, writes Dr. Elinore Kaufman for the New York Times. Dr Kaufman reveals that I.C.U beds, ventilators and personnel are necessary for Covid-19 patients but “gunshot victims are now fighting for space and resources inside America’s overcrowded I.C.U.s.” The Doctor pleads for change, especially during a time where resources are highly stretched. It would sadly be propitious to assume that COVID-19 is the wake-up call America needs to the gun violence crisis.

Juengling discusses the gun buybacks programme where any gun owner can hand in their possession without undergoing background checks. He deems himself an advocate for mandatory buybacks of all semiautomatic weapons as well as “closing the gun show loophole”. Although this doesn’t prevent a perpetrator from getting their hands on a firearm, or seemingly slow the current rate, it is a positive reinforcement to encourage those who own, to give up the guns. Gun Buybacks Gun buybacks encourages gun owners to trade firearms to government entities, mostly law enforcement, in return for vouchers or other items of value. Although early research showed these to be rather ineffective, recent research shows it can help if “part of a broader effort” to decrease gun violence, according to Journalists Resource. Most importantly, high-capacity assault weapons can be traded in for government entity. Yet, like most things, the biggest hurdle appears to be in the financial side. Journalists Resource claims the rifle buyback programme would range anywhere from $1 billion to $87 billion. And who’s to say the same individual wouldn’t go out and buy another firearm in the future?

The familiarity of guns brings Konrad Juengling a lot of anxiety when faced with carrying out his day-to-day. What may appear to be mundane tasks such as commuting is a task in which each action has to be taken carefully for many. Juengling fears that small mistakes such as cutting someone up in traffic could put his life in danger. For others, when fear is instilled in them or they are made to feel out of control, their comfort blanket is the gun. Whether it is the adrenaline rush of using it or the reassurance of possessing one. Guns to America are what cigarettes are to smokers. Both put a person’s life at risk, yet both enable a release of stress during a time of high anxiety like Coronavirus. And the two seem to be an addiction hard to curb.

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Wellbeing writer, host for The Inspired Narrative podcast and mental health support worker.

One thought on “COVID-19 Hits US But The Nation’s Biggest Threat Lies Elsewhere

  1. Americans carrying guns use the same reasons as youths do here in the UK. Quote, ‘I carry a knife to defend myself from the others who carry knives.’ In each case, angry? grab your weapon. now it’s drawn, use it. The same excuse always. ‘I did it in self defence.’ Most times the dead person wasn’t carrying a weapon. In the UK, banning fire arms was a waste of time. Anyone who needs one can find out that a gun can be hired from many places, the so called ‘Underworld.’ Pistols revolvers, even Uzi sub machine guns are available at a cost. Some guns that turn up have been used in shootings many times all round the country over several years. In America trying to ban full automatic weapons, ie, ex-army machine guns and full auto rifles never even got off the ground because the NRA, National Rifle Association have many members among all political parties. I know one American ex armed forces guy and his wife who between them own 20 hand guns from old cowboy Colt 45s to modern Glock 9mm semi auto pistols. They also go hunting bears during the ‘season’ with high powered rifles. As a result, they are no longer friends of mine. They are simply gun crazy.


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