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February 13, 2021

Philly's COVID-19 restrictions linked to city's alarming rise in gun violence, Temple study finds

The pandemic worsened poverty, unemployment and structural racism in Philadelphia

Crime Gun Violence
Gun-Violence-COVID-19 Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia saw an alarming increase in gun violence last year, and Temple University researchers found a strong correlation between the COVID-19 restrictions and the rise in the number of shootings.

In 2020, Philadelphia had one of its worst years for gun violence, most gruesomely evident by the 499 homicides last year, the vast majority of which were shooting deaths.

Last year's homicide total equals 40% more people killed than 2019 and marked the second deadliest year ever in Philadelphia – just one homicide shy of 1990 when 500 people were killed.

Researchers at Temple University released a study that found that COVID-19 containment restrictions had a significant impact on 2020's gun violence statistics.

The pandemic worsened poverty, unemployment and structural racism that "are empirically tied to violence in Philadelphia," the study said.

Dr. Jessica H. Beard, assistant professor of surgery and director of trauma research at Temple's medical school, said she had noticed an increasing number of shooting victims being treated at Temple University Hospital and other trauma centers around the city in 2020, which led her start the study.

Beard and a team of researchers examined the scale of the rise in the number of shootings and the causes behind it. 

"In the city of Philadelphia, shootings are often geographically concentrated in lower-income communities,” Beard said. "Our research shows that the measures put in place to contain the pandemic for health and safety reasons had a significant and sustained association with increased firearm violence in the city."

They looked at Philadelphia Police data for shooting victims for the past five years and found the number of people shot every week had spiked following COVID-19 lockdown measures in March 2020.

From Jan. 1, 2016 to Nov. 26, 2020, 7,159 people were shot in the city. Before March 16, 2020, when COVID-19 mitigation efforts began, the city had averaged 25 shottings per week. That number jumped to 46 people per week after the pandemic lockdown began.

There also has been a startling rise in gun violence and homicides among children. An average of three children were shot per week in the city, CNN reported in August 2020.

The research team looked to other major events from 2020 to spot trends beyond the pandemic.

They also analyzed the number of shooting victims in the weeks after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, which led to nationwide protests. Beard and the other researchers found the protests did not correlated to and increase in gun violence in Philadelphia. 

Similarly, a study out of Princeton University found that 75 of the 100 largest U.S. cities had experienced the highest rates of gun violence between January and March 2020, before the killing of Floyd.

"These findings indicate a significant and sustained increase in firearm violence in Philadelphia following enactment of COVID-19 containment policies," according to Temple Health.

Nationally, more than 19,000 people were killed in shootings in 2020. While Beard's study draws a clear line between the pandemic restrictions and gun violence, it only analyzed one city and cannot yet be generalized to account for the national surge in gun violence.

"In addition to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 in Philadelphia, we must also come together to address what is now an epidemic of gun violence in the city," Beard said.

Some effort has been made to reduce gun violence in Philadelphia. City Council sponsored gun buy-back events in North Philly and South Philly, where a total of 224 guns were returned in exchange for $100 gift cards for groceries.

Philadelphia police said guns left in houses typically end up getting stolen and used later in violent crimes. Free gun lockers are available through Temple Safety Net.

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