Until two lethal rampages this month, mass shootings had largely been absent from headlines during the coronavirus pandemic. But people were still dying — at a record rate.
In 2020, gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, more than any other year in at least two decades. An additional 24,000 people died by suicide with a gun.
The vast majority of these tragedies happen far from the glare of the national spotlight, unfolding instead in homes or on city streets and — like the COVID-19 crisis — disproportionately affecting communities of color.
Last week's shootings at spas in the Atlanta area and Monday's shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., killed a combined 18 people and rejuvenated a national effort to overhaul gun laws. But high-profile mass shootings such as those tend to overshadow the instances of everyday violence that account for most gun deaths, potentially clouding some people's understanding of the problem and complicating the country's response, experts say.
"There are many communities across this country that are dealing with ever-present gun violence that is just part of their daily experience," said Mark Barden, a cofounder of the gun violence prevention group Sandy Hook Promise. "It doesn't get the support, the spotlight, the national attention. People don't understand that it's continuous and it's on the rise."
Shooting deaths in 2020 outpaced the next-highest recent year, 2017, by more than 3,600. The rise resembles other alarming trends: Last year, the United States saw the highest one-year increase in homicides since it began keeping records, with the country's largest cities suffering a 30% spike. Gunshot injuries also rose dramatically, to nearly 40,000, over 8,000 more than in 2017.
In 2020, more than 2,240 people were shot in Philadelphia, a total 40% higher than ever recorded since police began separately tracking data on shooting victims in 2007.
The year was also one of the deadliest in Philadelphia’s history, as nearly 500 people were killed — more than all of 2013 and 2014 combined.
"More than 100 Americans are killed daily by gun violence," Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, said, using a figure that includes suicides. "The majority are in Black and Brown communities. We don't really focus on gun violence until we have these mass shootings, but it's an ongoing, chronic problem that affects a significant portion of our society."
Researchers say the pandemic probably fueled the increases in several ways. The spread of the coronavirus hampered anti-crime efforts, and the attendant shutdowns compounded unemployment and stress at a time when schools and other community programs were closed or online. They also note the apparent collapse of public confidence in law enforcement that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
COVID-19 and the protests against police brutality also led to a surge of firearm sales. In 2020, people purchased about 23 million guns, a 64% increase over 2019 sales, according to a Post analysis of federal data on gun background checks.
Dunn pointed to this flood of firearms as the most detrimental factor in the fight to curb gun violence. When shootings become "the soundscape of inner-city neighborhoods," he said, "it increases anxiety and stress and creates toxic stress." Dunn compared the effect to post-traumatic stress disorder akin to what war veterans experience.
One recent study called gun violence "a public health crisis decades in the making." Analyzing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it found that Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 accounted for 37% of gun homicides, even though they made up 2% of the U.S. population — a rate 20 times higher than White males of the same age.
Failing to focus on this more common form of gun violence obscures the severity of the crisis, Dunn said.
Nicole Hockley is another cofounder of Sandy Hook Promise, who, like Barden, lost her first-grade son in a mass shooting at their elementary school in Newtown, Conn. She said she still recalls, with remorse, a time when she didn't see the far-reaching impact of gun violence. When a gunman killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Hockley was ironing clothes in her living room.
"When I heard it on the news, my heart broke, I was so sad," she said. "But then I got on with my life."
Five months later, her son was killed at school.
"If we think about how many people are dying every single day, and we think about how would that be in our family or our community, perhaps that would motivate us to take ongoing action rather than spikes of action when something happens," Hockley said.
"Even if it's not happening in your community, it's happening in the community of America."
Across the country, the swell of shootings has not spared the young.
Nearly 300 children were shot and killed in 2020, according to Gun Violence Archive data, a 50% increase over the previous year. More than 5,100 kids and teens 17 and younger were killed or injured last year — over 1,000 more than any other year since 2014, when the website began tracking it.
The increase is especially striking because it occurred in a year when most children weren't attending class in person and were spared deadly school shootings. Experts say it highlights the severity of suicide and domestic violence.
Sandy Hook Promise's crisis center is fielding a record number of calls from young people contemplating suicide or witnessing other violence, Barden said.
"For a lot of students in our country, home is not the safest place to be," he said.
Even though the rate of mass shootings slowed last year, several occurred before the killings in Atlanta and Boulder, according to The Post's public mass shootings database.
Twenty-two people have been killed in five other shootings since last March: At a weekend Juneteenth celebration in Charlotte, N.C., a July 4 block party in Chicago and at a convenience store in Springfield, Mo., among others.
On average, there was one mass shooting every 73 days in 2020, compared with one every 36 days in 2019 and one every 45 days in 2017 and 2018. The slowdown interrupted what had been a five-year trend of more frequent and more deadly mass shootings.
That gun violence increased overall even as mass shootings declined underscores the fact that those high-profile events account for a relatively small share of firearm deaths. It should draw more attention to the victims and survivors of gun violence across the country, Barden said.
"They will bear the trauma and the scars of that catastrophe for the rest of their lives," he said. "The collateral damage is unquantifiable, and it's reaching almost everyone."
The Washington Post’s Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.