As pandemic ebbs, an old fear is new again: mass shootings

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Chicago resident Ray Mandel practices shooting during a session at Maxon Shooter's Supplies and Indoor Range, Friday, April 30, 2021, in Des Plaines, Ill. After a year of pandemic lockdowns, mass shootings are back, but the guns never went away. As the U.S. inches toward a post-pandemic future, guns are arguably more present in the American psyche and more deeply embedded in American discourse than ever before. The past year's anxiety and loss fueled a rise in gun ownership across political and socio-economic lines. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Brianne Smith was overjoyed to get an e-mail telling her to schedule a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Hours later, her relief was replaced by dread: a phone alert — another mass public shooting.

Before the pandemic, she would scan for the nearest exit in public places and routinely practiced active shooter drills at the company where she works. But after a year at home in the pandemic, those anxieties had faded. Until now.

“I haven't been living in fear with COVID because I'm able to make educated decisions to keep myself safe,” says Smith, 21, who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. “But there’s no way I can make an educated decision about what to do to avoid a mass shooting. I've been at home for a year and I'm not as practiced at coping with that fear as I used to be.”

After a year of pandemic lockdowns, public mass shootings are back. For many, the fear of contracting an invisible virus is suddenly compounded by the forgotten yet more familiar fear of getting caught in a random act of violence.

A database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University that tracks mass killings — defined as four or more dead, not including the shooter — showed just two public mass shootings in 2020. Since Jan. 1, there have been at least 11.

Yet while mass shootings dropped out of the headlines, the guns never went away. Instead, even as the U.S. inches toward a post-pandemic future, guns and gun violence feel more embedded in the American psyche than ever before. The fear and isolation of the past year have worked their way into every aspect of the U.S. conversation on firearms, from gun ownership to inner-city violence to the erosion of faith in common institutions meant to keep us safe.

MORE GUN OWNERS, AND DIFFERENT

More than 21 million people completed a background check to buy a gun last year, shattering all previous records, and a survey found that 40% identified as new gun owners — many of whom belong to demographics not normally associated with firearms, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association. Purchases of guns by Black Americans increased 58% over 2019 and sales to Hispanics went up 46%, the group says.