Firearms killed more children and adolescents in 2020 than car accidents, which had long been the leading cause of death for young people, a Washington Post analysis has found.
The Post analysis reviewed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention death records for people ages 1 through 19 from 2011 through October 2021. A research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) last week pointed out that firearms had become the leading cause of death for those ages in 2020, passing motor vehicle deaths, which include pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders.
The Post found deep racial disparities within the overall pattern. Non-Hispanic Black youths are the only group for whom guns are deadlier than cars. For non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics and non-Hispanic Native Americans, cars still kill many more young people than guns do, The Post found.
Black youths, who have long suffered the highest gun death rates among all racial and ethnic groups, experienced a 39 percent jump — the largest increase — in 2020. The rate for Black youths increased an additional 13 percent in the first 10 months of 2021, the latest for which CDC death records are available.
Gun deaths also increased 37 percent for Hispanic youths in 2020 and 17 percent for non-Hispanic Whites. Vehicles, however, still kill more young people than guns for those demographic groups.
Firearm deaths also increased 34 percent for non-Hispanic Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in 2020. That group has the second-highest rate of gun deaths after non-Hispanic Blacks.
Asians have the lowest death rates caused by firearms, as well as vehicles. Guns killed about the same number of Asian youngsters as vehicles in 2020 and 2021. The rate of firearm deaths declined for Asians in both years.
“The increasing firearm-related mortality reflects a longer-term trend and shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death,” wrote the authors of the NEJM research paper.
The country is very active in trying to reduce vehicle deaths, said Jennifer M. Whitehill, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in preventing injuries. The government spends money and uses research to craft policies for safer roadways and vehicles.
“But our government has proved itself unwilling or unable to do the same with firearm deaths and injuries,” Whitehill said.
Although governments “regulate drivers and vehicles,” she said, “sensible policies that could reduce shootings are not being widely implemented.”
If the country treated gun deaths as preventable — as it does with vehicle accidents — Whitehill said, “families might not be experiencing this heartbreak and terrible loss again and again.”