After gun sales spike, researchers wonder whether shootings will rise when pandemic abates, criminal justice professor says

Several news outlets reported March 2020 was the first March since 2002 without a “typical” school shooting (i.e., while there were several instances of school shootings on school campuses, they consisted of unintentional discharges, took place between adults on school property or occurred on college campuses, but did not involve students (see, for example, Lewis, 2020). Researchers and gun safety advocates are already beginning to wonder if the recent increased spike in gun sales will result in a return to high numbers of mass shootings once the pandemic ends.

My previous research on a sample of 455 mass murderers shows 73% of solo male offenders were likely to kill victims known to them (i.e., intimate partners or family members) (Gurian, 2018).  My research findings also show 60% of solo males used only firearms to murder their victims, and indicate offenders who use firearms are almost five times more likely to commit suicide or be killed (i.e., instigate suicide by police) than to survive the incident (Gurian, 2018). The media has recently reported on another effect of COVID-19: a reported rise in the number of intimate partner violence (IPV) cases (see, for example, Taub, 2020).

Sheltering in place because of COVID-19 puts victims in close quarters with their abusers.
Dr. Elizabeth Gurian

As citizens are asked to shelter in place due to COVID-19, victims remain in close quarters with their abusers. Eisner and Nivette (2020: 7) indicate “proximal mechanisms include economic anxiety, fear, depression, anger, quick escalation of tensions under unceasing cohabitation and lack of help-seeking options for victims,” including the escalation of violence toward children in the home, as well. These findings have important implications because mass murderers are generally more likely to kill their partners and family, and commit suicide as a result of personal crises.

Indeed, one of the notable impacts of COVID-19 is the dramatic decrease of mass murders committed in public places (e.g., the workplace or schools), increase in IPV cases, and subsequent media reporting of these events. The news is constructed based on accepted interpretations of pre-existing criteria. The power of the media can be seen through the way in which newspapers, television news, and internet sources are regularly part of the public’s daily routine. McCombs and Shaw (1972, p. 177) contend “the press may not be successful in telling people what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling people what to think about.

Meeting the ‘newsworthiness criteria

The media typically generates a vast number of daily reports and images committed to violence. Victim characteristics also factor into the likelihood of reporting (for example, cases where the victim was a female, child (non-infant), or of high status were more likely to be reported) (Peelo et al., 2004). Hall et al. (1978) identify “newsworthy” items as those that breach “normal” expectations of social life, together with events that: involve elite nations or people, are extraordinary, can be personalized, have negative consequences and are (or can be made to seem) part of a functioning newsworthy theme. Violence generally fulfils all of these criteria and is therefore inherently newsworthy.

Research has consistently documented the role of copycat and contagion effects due to media coverage of mass murderers. To limit these effects, mass murder researchers continuously advocate for a number of important changes to media reporting of mass murder incidents. In 2017, 149 scholars, professors and law enforcement professionals who study mass shooters called for the media to stop publishing the names and photos of these offenders (except during ongoing active searches), to stop using the names, photos or likenesses of past offenders, but to report everything else about the crimes (Dear Members of the Media, 2017).

Mass murders are difficult to prevent given their unpredictability.  However, it is important for law enforcement to understand how these offenders gather information about potential targets during their planning process, which can include online and/or physical reconnaissance and purchasing of supplies. It is also important to be aware of “leakage,” which occurs when an individual “intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to their feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may signal an impending violent act. These clues can take the form of subtle threats, boasts, innuendos, predictions or ultimatums. They may be spoken or conveyed in stories, diary entries, essays, poems, letters, songs, drawings, doodles, tattoos or videos” (O’Toole, 2000: 16).

In addition to previous recommendations on media reporting of mass murder, this is an important opportunity for the media to pivot away from publicizing the sensational aspects of these cases, and instead play an important role in educating the public, and encouraging citizens to report leakage and warning signs to law enforcement.

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If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or suicidal ideation contact:

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline
    (800) 799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    (800) 273-8255

Dr. Elizabeth Gurian is an associate professor of  criminal justice at Norwich University and associate director of the university’s School of Justice Studies and Sociology.

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