Guns and the 2020 elections

The 2020 elections were dominated by three overriding issues that no one could have anticipated before the start of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and an explosive Black Lives Matter movement. One might have thought that these crisis issues would have pushed the gun issue well down or even off the 2020 election agenda. In a certain respect that was true. Owing to the pandemic, 2020 was the first election year since 2012 that a statewide gun reform measure failed to appear on any state ballot. The cause had nothing to do with any lack of enthusiasm on the part of gun safety advocates. Rather, the process of collecting petition signatures to place referenda on state ballots was short-circuited by health restrictions. Despite this, however, guns and gun controversies infused each of the dominant national issues.

Measures enacted to combat the spread of the virus provoked a sharp and sometimes armed response from right-wing groups. In the spring and summer of 2020, armed protestors showed up in several state capitals to express opposition to pandemic lockdown policies they believed to be unnecessary and a violation of their rights.

Firearms-expressed anger extended beyond public protests, including, in one alarmingly extreme case, a foiled plot hatched by at least fourteen so-called militia members in Michigan to kidnap that state’s governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, in reprisal for her administration’s anti-virus measures. A similar plot was uncovered against Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam. A series of legally dubious police shootings of Black people around the country were the proximate motivation for widespread protests, coalescing under the Black Lives Matter movement banner. The country also witnessed an increase in shootings and homicides, especially in urban areas—an increase attributed, at least in part, to the interruption of programs devised to reduce gun violence because of the adverse economic effects of the pandemic. That increase was notable given that crime in virtually every other category continued to decline. Hovering over the entire fall election were fears of an armed presence during election time amidst the rallying of right-wing armed groups who spread alarm that the elections would be somehow hijacked by opponents of Republican President Donald Trump.

All of this occurred in the context of mass demonstrations around the country, which in a few instances led to violence, including a few incidents of armed violence. Yet despite some incidents of violence, the opposite was the case. According to a study by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, of the 7750 protests held in all fifty states from May to August 2020, 93 percent were non-violent. Violent protests were defined as those that involved interpersonal clashes or property damage. One notable shooting instance occurred in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when an armed 17-year-old counter-protestor shot three people, killing two. President Trump failed to condemn armed counter-protestors and expressed sympathy for the Kenosha shooter. He also sought to paint the demonstrations in dire terms, playing on fears of a breakdown of law and order. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden denounced violence on all sides and urged calm.

The other notable trend spurred by the climate of uncertainty and concerns over violence was an upsurge in gun sales. The spread of the pandemic prompted an increase in gun sales, a seemingly puzzling response, given that firearms bear no relationship to viral infection. Gun purchases were also spurred by fear surrounding the racial justice protests and counter-protests.

As for gun groups, as of election day 2020 the National Rifle Association had spent $23.4 million on the campaign overall, roughly a third of that spent in 2016. Of that, $16.2 million went to the Trump campaign, less than the over $31 million it spent on Trump in 2016. The gun safety group Everytown for Gun Safety spent $21.1 million in 2020.

Second Amendment rights re-entered the political debate with the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The most revealing piece of information about her view on gun rights came from a dissenting opinion she wrote in a 2017 court of appeals case upholding a law that barred felons from obtaining guns. In her dissent, Barrett relied on a narrow and historically inaccurate view of old gun laws. That, plus her self-proclaimed “Originalist” philosophy signal that Barrett’s addition to the high court will undoubtedly provide a firm five-member majority for striking down gun laws formerly held constitutional.

Despite polls showing that large majorities of Americans feared Election Day violence, there was none—the election itself went off without any violence or disruption. A few scattered vote-counting protests emerged in the days after election day. Trump supporters were disappointed at the outcome, but the process unfolded as intended.