Rising Gun Violence Threatens US Democracy, Warns Researcher – Crime Report


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The confluence of rising gun sales and political extremism has put U.S. democracy at risk,  warns a leading gun violence researcher.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) at UC Davis and the California Firearm Violence Research Center, says the “unprecedented surge in firearm purchases” has created a combustible political landscape. 

“We have no time to waste if we are to prevent the loss of thousands of lives and emerge with our democracy intact,” Wintemute wrote in a commentary, noting that the 27.5 percent increase in violent crime last year, along with a 6.5 percent increase in hate crimes should worry all Americans.

(Latest figures show that the increase in homicides had already begun to slow over the past several months, and the numbers are still well below the peak crime rates of the 1990s.)

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Dr. Garen Wintemute

Nevertheless, Wintemute said the rise in violent rhetoric challenging traditional U.S. institutions, which led to the Jan. 6 storming of Congress needed to be addressed,

Wintemute cited social media sites and leading conservative figures who appeared to endorse  a military-style coup, and the resurgence of voter suppression laws reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

“All of these examples, and many more, point to a strong possibility of large-scale political violence soon within the U.S.,” Wintemute said.

The commentary comes as the Supreme Court prepares to weigh in on a New York case which will rule on the ability of states to regulate carrying concealed weapons in public.

Wintemute said many others shared the concern. Nearly 200 experts concluded that the U.S. democracy is now at risk, and terrorism experts talk of “almost certain” attempts at political violence.

Meanwhile, background checks on firearm purchases for January 2020 to September 2021 are 59.9 percent above expected levels, as an estimated 12.5 million excess background checks have been conducted resulting in 33.4 million altogether. 

Politics and Gun Violence

Wintemute details that no conversation about the rise in gun violence would be complete without acknowledging the “grim portrait of alienation” in America and our current state of divisive politics. 

“Nearly 70 percent of adults, with very similar results for Democrats and Republicans, agree that ‘American democracy only serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful’; fewer than 20 percent believe that political leaders will ‘do what is right for [me] and [my] community,’” Wintemute cites, noting that the spikes in violence coincide with the rise in extremist’s views and normalization of extremist ideals. 

On the same front, many Republican states have simultaneously loosened restrictions on firearms, inciting more avenues for potential violence. 

In at least 20 states, lawmakers have allowed the carrying of firearms in public without a permit. Moreover, Wintemute notes that in at least 9 states, federal gun statute enforcement has been interfered with along party lines. 

Most notably, Missouri has become the latest state to go toe-to-toe with President Biden’s gun control proposals as GOP Gov. Mike Parson threatened a penalty of $50,000 against any local police agency that enforces certain federal gun law regulations that “infringe” upon the Second Amendment gun rights. 

Because of this, Wintemute writes that there is a real threat to our democracy and to our future, and if we don’t get the rise in gun violence under control, more violence will come our way. 


Wintemute said there are still plenty of opportunities to reverse the trend.

Governments can decrease violence with investment in poor communities, and individual Americans can work to reduce disparity, increase opportunity, and build inclusive communities.

Each one of us can also support initiatives that improve education, income, job and housing security, as well as medical and criminal justice reform. 

The support can also come from our democratic system of voting — helping everyone to find their own voice, as well as have a say in what our neighborhoods look like.

For individuals with more influence than most, Wintemute says that objectives and plans for change should be specific, measurable, and achievable, and given a timeline. He also suggests adding new tasks as each one is completed. 

“The country has a broader and deeper awareness of the structural causes of violence than at any time in the past 50 years, if not longer,” Wintemute said. “The proper reaction to the threat of violence is not more violence — nor is it giving up. We have no choice but to act now as if fundamental change is possible.” 

The UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) is a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development focused on the causes, consequences and prevention of violence.

The full commentary can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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