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CDC report reveals 'historic' increases in gun-related homicides

A new CDC report shows historic increases in gun-related homicides. KPBS Reporter Matt Hoffman spoke with an advocate who’s calling for more community-based prevention strategies to address the spike.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis found firearm homicide rates nationwide rose 35% from 2019 to 2020. The report said it is the highest firearm homicide rate in more than 25 years.

An analysis from the same time period found that gun-related homicides in San Diego County were up 38%.

The CDC report also found that firearms were involved in 53% of all suicides in 2020.

“The tragic and historic increase in firearm homicide and the persistently high rates of firearm suicide underscore the urgent need for action to reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “By addressing factors contributing to homicide and suicide and providing support to communities, we can help stop violence now and in the future.”

The CDC report said the reasons for the increases are unclear "and potentially complex," but they do propose some explanations. These include increased stress and disruptions from the pandemic, "strains in law enforcement-community relations reflected in protests over law enforcement use of lethal force, increases in firearm purchases, and intimate partner violence."

Findings also suggest that the "COVID-19 pandemic might have exacerbated existing social and economic stressors that increase risk for homicide and suicide, particularly among certain racial and ethnic communities."

For firearm homicides, the report found the highest rates and increases "occurred among non-Hispanic Black persons," and rates were larger in areas with higher poverty levels.

"When you see those numbers I’m not surprised," said Cornelius Bowser, a local gun violence prevention advocate.

Bowser has helped pass safe storage laws in San Diego and ordinances targeting ghost guns.

"My focus is gangs, gang violence and specifically when addressing the crimes, gun crimes," he said.

Earlier this year Bowser launched the No Shots Fired program in San Diego and wants to see more community based-intervention programs to address the increase in firearm-related homicides.

"We have to shift that approach to where we have community-based organizations that are trained and professionals and know how to go in and address community gun violence from a community perspective — not a law enforcement perspective," Bowser said. "If you really want to prevent gun violence then you need those like myself, I’m a former gang member, [who] have that credible authority to go in there and be a credible messenger and talk with individuals who will listen to us"

Bowser said more preventative, not reactive strategies are needed.

"And I’m not trying to be a critic of the police because I work with them and they can hate on me and try to squash everything we’re doing — but I have to speak truth — if policing by itself worked, why are we in the dilemma we’re in? That’s what we have to ask ourselves," he said.

Officials at San Diego County Sheriff's Department said they could not comment on the CDC report without reviewing their own statistics and data. The San Diego Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The report did mention increases could be due to increased gun sales. San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee executive director Michael Schwartz said the data shows California's restrictive firearm laws do not prevent suicide or violent crime.

"California gun laws are disproportionately used against minorities which results in more convictions and longer jail sentences for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community, which is destroying those communities," Schwartz said in a statement.

With such a large spike, Schwartz recommends more gun safety education and, "more programs that teach sane, trained, law-abiding people to own and carry firearms for protection against violent attacks."