We’ve all seen the images: the guy hanging out the window of a pickup truck waving his confederate flag, the crowds on the steps of municipal buildings with their automatic weapons, irate motorists screaming from their cars at overworked and traumatized health care workers. They’re demanding their “right” to defy science and potentially jeopardize the health of countless of their fellow citizens in a global pandemic that we know too little about. They claim that their liberties have been infringed upon, comparing stay-at-home orders to communism.
Over many decades, the National Rifle Association leadership has become masterful at playing to people’s fears and convincing them that the end times are just around the corner — that they will soon need to take up arms against their government and neighbors. Whether it’s convincing people their guns will be taken away from them with the next election or demanding teachers be armed in order to protect innocent school children or that intimate partners who have been convicted of abuse should not have their Second Amendment right infringed upon (as is the case in the refusal of some in Congress to reinstate the Violence Against Women Act) or that everyone needs multiple guns per home to protect against a global pandemic, they have manipulated people into an unhealthy and dangerous obsession of armament.
The latest example: In March 2020, as we all prepared to hunker down under an uncertain quarantine, gun sales doubled from the usual 1 million to 2 million. That is the second-highest month since sales started being tracked in the United States in the late 1930s. And it doesn’t stop there. A website that sells ammunition reported a 1,000 percent increase in sales in Texas, Colorado, and Arizona since late February. Since the entry of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders became part of our reality, both the reports of domestic violence and child abuse and the dramatic rise in gun sales are a legitimate and serious cause for concern. Even before the pandemic, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experienced abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. Nearly 100 people die each day in America due to gun violence.
“Mental health response to COVID is really critical, and violence is something that has to be addressed fundamentally and systemically,” Natalia Linos, social epidemiologist at health and justice expert at the Harvard FXB Center, said in a recent interview. “Governments mandated various closings and stay-at-home orders but did not ensure there were alternatives for those who would not be safe at home.”
Between the lack of planning, failures in our government to protect women in general, and the rise in stress — as well as firearm sales — advocacy and help lines have been experiencing such high call volumes that many report not being able to keep up with the demand. Women’s shelters are at maximum capacity because of physical distancing requirements and are having to turn women and children away. All the while, hotels sit empty when they could be engaged in a public-private partnership for these very real, very dire needs.
We have failed to address abuse in this country. We have failed to address the gun culture. We have failed to address systemic inequalities. And we failed even before the coronavirus pandemic swept our planet.
We need to prepare for what’s next. That means removing the entire notion of getting back to normal. Normal is a lack of balance and access to mental health programs. Normal is economic, health care, and environmental inequalities that allowed for the disproportionate killing of Black and brown people at the hands of COVID-19. Normal is a nation driven by fear and reacting to that fear by bulk-buying guns and sending people with firearms back to their homes with raised anxiety and stress levels. Normal was a failure.
The commonality between abuse and the dangerous aspects of gun culture are inextricably connected. And tackling both must be a top priority — we can no longer put it off or insist the time isn’t right. We’ve run out of time for either/or problem-solving. We can choose to solve whole problems, not just pieces of them. We can lead with humanity instead of greed and an insatiable hunger for power. It starts with intentionality, and it has to start today.
Every one of us has a part to play. If this devastating pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we truly are a global community, and we make choices every day to show up for one another, or not.
Rania Batrice is a strategist working at the intersection of politics, policy, and advocacy.