American flags at the White House and other federal buildings were still flying at half-staff on Monday, in memory of the eight people gunned down in Atlanta, when another shooting rampage in Boulder, Colo. left 10 more dead.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden ordered the flags to be lowered again.
For many in the nation, the shootings, which occurred less than a week apart, have been a solemn reminder that while there’s some hope the U.S. can beat COVID-19 someday, there’s far less optimism that leaders can end the gun violence scourge.
“It’s nice that the White House is lowering its flags to half-mast and all, but let’s get real,” says Colleen Lindsay, a volunteer with Everytown for Gun Safety. “That flag may as well live at half-mast.”
Police and gun violence experts agree, warning that large-scale mass shootings—apart from the gun violence that has plagued U.S. cities through the pandemic—are inevitable as the weather warms and more people get vaccinated, enabling large gatherings in public spaces. Some worry the attacks could return at a higher frequency, citing record gun sales in 2020.
“We can expect that these kinds of shootings will unfortunately become more prevalent,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “This is what normal has come to be like in America.”
Despite a pandemic that kept much of the U.S. at home, 2020 was one of the nation’s most violent years in decades, experts say. Homicides soared in many major cities. And more than 19,000 people were fatally shot in 2020—the highest death toll in more than 20 years, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence incidents. The nonprofit says there were more than 600 incidents in which four or more people were shot in 2020, which is nearly 50% more than the year before.
With schools, movie theaters, concerts and other public venues mostly closed, though, COVID-19 largely gave Americans a respite from the types of active-shooter situations that plagued the U.S. pre-pandemic. But as the nation inches closer to normality, gun-reform advocates warn a dramatic increase in gun sales will have lingering effects long after the coronavirus crisis is over.
About 22.8 million firearms were sold in 2020, compared with 13.9 million the previous year, according to estimates by the Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, an independent research firm. In 2020, the FBI conducted more firearm background checks than any year on record—more than 39.6 million, data from the agency shows. More than 8.4 million people in the U.S. became first-time gun owners last year, the National Shooting Sports Foundation says, adding that record sales have sparked ammunition shortages across the country.
“My fear was that we would start to see these mass shootings again when we started to go out in public, and that is exactly what is happening,” says Shannon Watts, who founded the gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action.
Mass shootings are rare, according to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, but he’s concerned they will increase. Webster says hard times could cause more people to feel angry or to blame others for their misfortune, which could lead to violence.
It’s unclear what drove a 21-year-old man to fatally shoot 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder on Monday. Police there have not yet released details about a possible motive, although the suspect is in custody. The suspect in Atlanta is also a 21-year-old man and is accused of murdering eight people, including six Asian women, at three area spas on March 16. Authorities have said he had a “sex addiction” and saw his victims as “temptation” that he “wanted to eliminate.” The attack came amid rising anti-Asian violence and racism, and the shootings are seen by many as an obvious hate crime, even if law enforcement has not labeled them as such.
On May 20, 2020, after a lull in active-shooter incidents during the pandemic, a 20-year-old gunman in Glendale, Ariz., wounded three people near a popular shopping complex, days after the state’s stay-at-home orders expired. Prosecutors said the suspected shooter felt bullied and ignored by women, according to local news reports. The misogyny in that case and in Atlanta, Watts says, is not a coincidence in the U.S., where women are 21 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other developed nations. Neither is the timing of both shootings, which happened when Americans were trying to return to normal outdoor activities.
“We’re the only high-income country where recovering from a pandemic means shooting tragedies resume in public,” Watts says.