Mass shootings surge in Iowa as nation faces record high

Marco della Cava and Mike Stucka
USA TODAY NETWORK

Mass shootings in Iowa increased to four in 2020 from three the year before, while nationally mass shootings jumped nearly 50% during a pandemic with crippling unemployment, violent protests and idle youth.

In 2020, Iowa reported four mass shootings that killed five and injured 16. A year earlier, the state had three mass shootings that killed three and injured 11.

Among Iowa's deadliest shootings last year was one Sept. 26 in Waterloo that killed two and injured six.

With COVID-19 cases falling and vaccines rolling out, some criminologists hope a rebounding economy and reopened schools will drive down the national numbers in 2021.

Early results are promising, says Mark Bryant, founder of the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun incident trends. In the first seven weeks of this year, there have been 63 mass shootings — defined as four or more people injured or killed in one incident — which if continued would show a drop from 2020, he said.

“I’m hoping last year proves to be the anomaly,” said Bryant. “The stresses caused by last year, from jobs to illness, were not just an urban thing or a rural thing. We saw bumps in towns in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as in Chicago and Philadelphia.”

Other experts warn that reducing mass shootings across the United States will require more than simply putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

COVID-19 highlighted long-standing healthcare, education, housing and employment inequities in the nation's communities of color and only policy changes that improve living conditions will lead to shooting reductions, said Jerika Richardson, senior vice president for Equitable Justice & Strategic Initiatives at the National Urban League, a non-partisan civil rights organization based in New York.

"We want to see a decline but we won’t until the nation does more to advance justice and economic empowerment for these communities," said Richardson. "Civil rights groups are on it. But to see a decline in numbers in 2021 and beyond we need everyone in this country to get involved and do the work."

A USA TODAY analysis of Gun Violence Archive statistics from 2020 shows that mass shootings surged by 47% as many states reported unprecedented increases in weapons-related incidents. In 2020, the United States reported 611 mass shooting events that resulted in 513 deaths and 2,543 injuries. In 2019, there were 417 mass shootings with 465 deaths and 1,707 injured.

“Those numbers are sobering,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit that works to reduce gun violence nationally. “There are lots of theories flying left and right as to why this happened and it’s too early to tell, but what’s clear is that it was a very deadly year.”

Another big factor in last year's surge is record gun sales, she said. According to the FBI, the agency performed 39.7 million background checks for gun purchases in 2020, up 40% over 2019. Those gun purchases came at a time of heightened concerns about both public safety and anti-police sentiments, as well as warnings of violence by former President Donald Trump.

The result was a more on-edge and armed citizenry. The Police Executive Research Forum, a non-profit research and policy group, noted that 70% of police departments surveyed experienced an increase in non-fatal shootings in 2020 relative to 2019.

“The entire year was extremely violent,” said Patrick Sharkey, a gun violence researcher and professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. “This could end up the most violent year of this century.”

The most dramatic increases in mass shootings last year were found in states with cities that boast large Black and Latino populations, groups that traditionally are disproportionately impacted by crime and gun violence as well as, more recently, COVID-19 cases and deaths, along with high unemployment rates driven by the pandemic.

New York saw a jump in mass shootings from nine to 38; Illinois, from 41 to 69; Florida, from 15 to 34; Pennsylvania, from 19 to 34; South Carolina, from 10 to 22; and Tennessee, from seven to 19.

One very specific by-product of the pandemic — the wearing of masks — played a role in ratcheting up tensions that often led to violence, said Terrance Staley, program coordinator for the Alliance for Concerned Men, a long-standing community group that works to de-escalate conflicts in the Black community in Washington, D.C.

"Those context cues are not visible with masks, so you don’t know who’s up on you until they’re right there," said Staley. "In neighborhoods with a lack of safety, that sort of fear leads to a lot of people carrying guns."

In Staley's Southeast D.C. community last August, a dispute between two individuals quickly escalated into a gunfight that killed one and wounded 21. While he is "always hopeful," Staley isn't convinced that the eventual elimination of masks or even the return to school or employment will result in a drop in mass shootings this year.

"Without ways of mitigating the conflict that is out there right now, the mindset will still be the same," he said. "Taking off these masks won’t help, a vaccine won’t help. It's all about teaching conflict resolution so that people don't just reach for their guns first."

Many mass shooting sites closed during pandemic

Overall, the types of gun-related violence that took place over the past 12 months often involved family members and gang members, experts note.

So while the pandemic shut down many locations that have been notorious for mass killings — schools, concerts, movie theaters, malls — it contributed to shootings by exacerbating existing financial and health inequities while taking away structured settings and activities for young people, who often are both perpetrators and victims of gun violence, experts said.

“Unemployment is up, so crime is up,” said Jason Silva, assistant professor in the department of sociology and criminal justice at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. “The 16 to 24 and largely male population often involved in gun violence no longer had the distractions of school or after school activities. Add a jump in drug use and you have a number of possible factors.”

The rise in mass shootings last year stands in contrast to a drop in public mass killings, incidents where four or more people died. The definition encompasses all weapons, not just firearms.

Early in 2020, there were two public mass killings before the pandemic took hold, in which at least four people who weren't assailants died. Five died at a Milwaukee brewery and four at a Springfield, Missouri, gas station. There have been no more public mass killings since, according to the Associated Press/USA TODAY/Northeastern University Mass Killing Database.

One explanation for the drop in public mass killings could be that such killers often think "they’re alone in being miserable and victims of injustice, but during a pandemic year it’s clear to all that many are suffering,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston. About the dip in mass killings becoming permanent, he said, “I’m somewhat hopeful.”

Fox, who oversees the Mass Killing Database and is an occasional columnist as part of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, does not minimize the big leap in mass shooting events tallied by the Gun Violence Archive. But he said perspective is important.

“You read that there were more than 600 mass shootings last year and you immediately think, 600 El Pasos,” he said, referring to the 2019 shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart where 23 were killed and 23 others injured.

“That’s not what this is,” said Fox, noting that mass shootings, when compared to mass killings, typically have a lower death count and often involve individuals who know each other and have a pre-existing conflict.

A particularly deadly summer

Summer months are usually the deadliest, as warm weather and a school hiatus find more people out in the streets. But USA TODAY’s analysis of 2020 shows an alarming leap last summer as many states experienced a lull in COVID-19 cases and started to optimistically re-open.

Reviewing the past four years of Gun Violence Archive shootings data shows that before 2020 there was never a month with more than 53 mass shootings where four or more with injured or killed.

But in May, there were 60 incidents, followed by 95 in June, 88 in July, 79 in August, 67 in September, 51 in October, and 49 in November. December saw the tally drop to 26 incidents.

Gun Violence Archive founder Bryant remains hopeful that the eventual fading of the pandemic and its associated issues will lead to a reduction this year in mass shootings.

But he adds that police departments likely will have to step up their efforts to get the estimated 50 to 100 million illegal guns in the country out of circulation. The gun control measures often touted by President Joe Biden's administration may also come into play, he said. These include measures aimed at keeping guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others, and creating a standard for gun storage.

"I started this archive in 2012, and my goal has always been to see that my job is eliminated," said Bryant. "So far, that sadly hasn't happened.”

Follow USA TODAY national correspondent @marcodellacava and national data solutions editor @mikestucka

A vigil is held at the site of the an Indianapolis mass shooting in January 2021 where Kezzie Childs, 42, Raymond Childs, 42, Elijah Childs, 18, Rita Childs, 13, Kiara Hawkins, 19, and her unborn baby boy were killed. Mass shootings have increased during the pandemic, Gun Violence Archive data shows.