Citing fears over violence and chaos, more than 100,000 Californians have bought guns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study estimates.
Researchers said the findings add to evidence that the U.S. pandemic has sparked firearm "panic-buying." Early on, federal figures showed a spike in background checks, while some online firearm retailers reported soaring sales, according to Giffords, a gun violence prevention group.
The new study went beyond numbers, asking gun buyers about their motivations, said lead researcher Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, an assistant professor with the University of California, Davis, Violence Prevention Research Program.
And it found that fear of violence and societal breakdown was the main driver.
The findings come from an ongoing California survey on firearm ownership and exposure to violence. Among 2,870 adults statewide, about 2.5% said they'd bought a firearm due to the pandemic.
That, according to Kravitz-Wirtz, translated to an estimated 110,000 gun purchases for the whole state. And it included 47,000 by first-time buyers.
Most buyers pointed to fears over "lawlessness" (76%), prison releases (56%), the government "going too far" (49%), or the government "collapsing" (38%).
The rise in firearm access is concerning, Kravitz-Wirtz said, because "extensive research" shows that having a gun in the home increases the risks of accidents, suicide and homicide -- particularly where a woman is the victim.
Those risks could be further heightened now, at a time of widespread anxiety, unemployment and social isolation, according to Kravitz-Wirtz.
For mental health experts, the big concern is suicide, said Debbie Plotnick, vice president of state and federal advocacy for the nonprofit Mental Health America.
Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, she said. And access to a firearm greatly raises the odds that a suicide attempt will end in death.
With the pandemic taking a widespread mental health toll, experts fear it will all result in an increase in suicides, Plotnick said.
Since January, she noted, the Mental Health America website has seen a surge in traffic to its free screening tools for conditions like anxiety and depression. And many visitors are young people under age 24.
"We're finding that young people are having a harder time than adults who've had the chance to live through trying times before," Plotnick said.
So it's particularly concerning, she noted, when guns are in the same home as teenagers and young adults -- especially if the weapons are not stored properly.
And that may be a common scenario, the survey found. In response to pandemic fears, some gun owners had begun keeping firearms loaded and within easy reach.
An estimated 55,000 California gun owners had switched to that unsafe practice, according to Kravitz-Wirtz. About half of them lived with children or teenagers.
With many children home all day, that increases the chances of an accident, Kravitz-Wirtz noted.
Plotnick said, "If you bought a gun to make your family safer, the result may be the opposite."
Both she and Kravitz-Wirtz stressed the importance of safer gun storage -- keeping firearms unloaded and locked away, with ammunition locked up separately.
Beyond the risks posed by firearms themselves, the rush to buy one can be a red flag: People who are that anxious may need help, according to Plotnick.
"You should probably be thinking about why you're buying it," she said.
In fact, the survey found that worries were widespread, regardless of whether people had bought a firearm. More than half of all respondents were at least "somewhat" worried about violence in their neighborhood. Roughly two-thirds were concerned about robberies and assaults, while about half were worried about shootings and police violence.
The degree to which respondents were personally at risk is unclear. But to Kravitz-Wirtz, the point is that fear of violence is pervasive.
"Violence affects so many people, beyond those directly involved," she said. "It ripples across entire communities."
A positive finding, Kravitz-Wirtz added, was that most people said they were willing to seek help, whether from a hotline, family or friends, or police.
For people in need of mental health help, Plotnick said there are nonprofits like Mental Health America and hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Many therapists are offering services via telehealth as well.
The findings were published recently on the preprint server medRxiv. Studies on preprint servers have not yet undergone peer review.
Mental Health America has resources on COVID-19 and mental health.