The murder of 6-year-old Aiden Leos sent shockwaves through his California community. Aiden was in the back seat of his mother's car on his way to kindergarten on May 21, 2021 when, prosecutors say, Marcus Eriz became enraged at allegedly being cut off. Eriz is accused of opening fire from a moving vehicle, killing Aiden, before fleeing.
Aiden was one of 522 people killed or injured in road rage shootings in the U.S. in 2021, according to statistics compiled by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety and released Monday. Amid the pandemic, road rage violence has not only increased, but become drastically more deadly, according to the data.
In terms of both the total number of shootings, and the deadliness of those incidents, 2021 was by far the worst year since Everytown began tracking road rage statistics. Of the nation's 728 road rage incidents involving a gun in 2021, nearly two-thirds, 62%, led to an injury or death; 131 people were killed.
The violence of 2021 far outpaced 2020, itself a record-setting year, when there were 702 road rage encounters involving a gun, 49% of which led to injury or death; 102 people were killed.
Everytown's data was derived from the database of nationwide shooting reports maintained by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. The group's road rage violence statistics date back to 2016.
Road rage violence in the U.S. is unparalleled elsewhere, according to Sarah Burd-Sharps, Everytown's senior director of research.
"Driving certainly gets heated in plenty of other countries. And we've looked at road rage in a number of countries, but only in the U.S. is someone shot and injured or killed every 17 hours, is what we've calculated, in a road rage incident," said Burd-Sharps.
Burd-Sharps pointed to a spike in gun purchases during the last two years as a possible factor that might explain the increase in road rage violence.
"You can't ignore the record increase in gun sales. In the 10 years through 2019, there were about 13.5 million guns sold (annually). So over a decade it was pretty stable. In 2020, it jumped up to 22 million sold and in 2021, 19 million, so millions more guns," said Burd-Sharps.
And the mere presence of a gun in a vehicle has been shown to make drivers more aggressive. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60 people were randomly assigned a frustrating scenario to drive, with either a gun or a tennis racket placed in the passenger seat. Study author Brad Bushman said the presence of a gun in the car proved detrimental.
"We have nationally representative data showing that drivers who have guns in their vehicles are more aggressive drivers than those who do not," said Bushman, an Ohio State University professor of communication.
Bushman, who was a member of former President Barack Obama's committee on gun violence, said research suggests people become more aggressive when they're frustrated.
"So when people are in a car, they have a goal, right? The goal is to get from point 'A' to point 'B,' presumably as quickly as possible. And if anything frustrates that it increases the likelihood of aggression, and if there's a gun in the vehicle, that makes a lethal event more likely," said Bushman.
That combination of frustration, aggression and a firearm, is what led to Aiden Leos' death, according to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
"A monster with a gun murdered a little boy on his way to kindergarten — because he was cut off on the freeway," Spitzer said in a statement on March 30, announcing that two people will face trial in the shooting. "The callousness of this crime is unspeakable."
Eriz, 25, was arrested last year along after a 17-day-long manhunt. He has been charged with one felony count of murder and one felony count of shooting into an occupied vehicle. His former girlfriend, 23-year-old Wynne Lee, who is accused of being in the driver's seat at the time of the shooting, has been charged with one felony count of accessory after the fact and one misdemeanor count of having a concealed firearm in a vehicle.
They've each entered not guilty pleas in the case.