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Emergency medical service encounters for firearm injuries spiked during pandemic and remained elevated last year, study finds

By Jen Christensen, CNN

(CNN) — Rates of emergency medical services encounters for firearm injuries spiked in 2021 to more than 25% over 2019 levels, but they began to fall in the following years. However, rates were still higher in 2023 than before the Covid-19 pandemic began, a new study says.

Young Black men who live in urban areas with severe housing problems — such as overcrowding, high cost or a lack of functional facilities — and high unemployment and income disparities were the most vulnerable to that gun violence, according to the new research from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The research was published Thursday in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The researchers took a closer look at data on people who sought help from EMS for a firearm injury in 858 counties in 27 states between January 2019 and September 2023. Because the study focused on these centers only, it cannot be generalizable and speak to trends nationally. However, it offers a good snapshot of the level of gun violence across the country and which people are most likely to be injured, at least in some areas.

Compared with the year before the Covid-19 pandemic began, the report says, the rate of EMS encounters for firearm injuries was generally elevated through the fall of 2023. Rates were 22% higher in 2020, 27% higher in 2021, 17% higher in 2022 and 14% higher in 2023 than in 2019.

Firearm injuries were highest among people ages 15 to 24, but the largest increase in injuries during this period was among children and teens up to age 14.

The data doesn’t capture how people were injured with firearms, so it could have been through self-harm, an accident or a crime.

The researchers also couldn’t say why the rate of firearm injuries had grown. One reason could be the number of guns in circulation. Previous research has showed that there was a significant spike in firearm purchases in 2020, and the number of purchases has remained higher than in pre-pandemic times, although there was a slight decline in 2023 from the year before.

The study authors also noted that after stay-at-home recommendations were put in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, research showed an increase in domestic violence in the US.

And the number of suicide attempts in the US increased during the pandemic, studies show.

However, studies showed that violent crime – including crime that involved guns – declined significantly last year compared with the year before, with murder rates having some of the largest declines in history.

The researchers on the new study say the data can’t capture the number of people who immediately died from firearm injuries and thus didn’t need help from an emergency medical service. The quality of the data can also vary, since it relies on EMS personnel to enter all the information accurately, according to the CDC.

The CDC researchers said they hope the new report will encourage hospitals and community groups to promote secure firearm storage to help reduce the number of people injured by firearms.

In a separate CDC survey released this month, firearm owners in eight states reported that many kept guns unlocked and loaded, including in homes with children. In Alaska, that was the case in more than 40% of homes in the survey with children. In Ohio, it was more than 25%.

The new report also urged states and local communities to develop comprehensive firearm injury prevention strategies, such as addressing some of the potential underlying issues hinted at in the report.

One such issue, access to affordable housing, has long been a problem in the US, and during the pandemic, rents increased about 24% government data shows. Such a lack of access can weaken social ties, potentially contributing to safety issues.

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