A curious thing happened last year while the nation endured a string of COVID-19 lockdowns. Mass homicides — four or more dead — declined by a third from 2019, while mass shootings — in which four or more people are wounded but not necessarily killed — jumped nearly 50%, according to data maintained by the Gun Violence Archive. At the same time, suicides by firearm — despite all that emotional stress and domestic isolation — remained steady at about 24,100.

Why was that? Experts offer different speculations. Fewer interactions among people outside the home reduced the possibility of, say, school or workplace shootings, but more hours spent in close quarters inside the home exacerbated interpersonal conflict at a time when more people were buying more guns (more about that in a moment). But why didn't gun suicides increase? Better data collection and focused research could shed light on these issues and guide policies aimed at reducing gun violence in a country awash in firearms.

But Second Amendment hard-liners such as the National Rifle Association have worked hard to muzzle research and derail discussions among officials over how our gun policies affect public safety and public health. Their obstinacy has stymied efforts to balance the interests of gun rights adherents against the rights of the rest of us to not get shot as we go about our daily lives.

And our potential exposure to gun violence is only getting worse. Since the initial COVID-19 shutdowns last March, Americans have engaged in gun-buying sprees — by existing gun owners and tens of thousands of first-time purchasers — driven by fear of social breakdown from the pandemic, the widespread anti-racism protests, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol two months ago by right-wing insurrectionists.

Meanwhile, Arkansas just joined the growing list of states with a "stand your ground" law allowing people to use guns if they feel threatened — even if they can safely walk away from danger. Researchers have found that these statutes haven't decreased violent crime (and in some cases have increased gun violence), contrary to their backers' promises, and that white people were more likely to successfully use the defense than people of color.

Such is the pernicious nature of fear. To guard against the specter of social collapse, people buy guns, which then are more likely to be used to kill a family member or commit suicide than to defend home and hearth from the thundering hordes.

So, yes, in the name of fear more Americans have been arming themselves with more guns, thus putting themselves or loved ones at a higher risk of death by gunfire. Campaigning for president, Joe Biden pledged to move forcefully to try to address the problem in multiple ways, including restrictions on so-called assault weapons and mandatory background checks, which are laudable steps. But he must go further in search of new data and new answers.