In 2020, firearm fatalities displaced motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death of U.S. youth (ages 1 to 19). We long ago dramatically reduced infectious deaths (though vaccine hesitancy threatens to upend this victory), and the “big five” have been auto accidents, firearms, cancer, suffocation, and drug overdose – accidental in the youngest and intentional or accidental in teens.
Between 2000 and 2015, firearm deaths remained steady at about 10 percent of all youth deaths, but this has grown dramatically since, and guns caused 19 percent of young people’s deaths in 2021. Children, of course, are not the only ones to suffer. Between 1990 and 2021, 1,110,421 Americans died due to gunshots: homicidal, suicidal, or accidental. The death rate has roughly doubled between 2014 and 2021. Deaths disproportionately affect males: 86 percent of the 1.1 million deaths were men. When looking at deaths among young people, black boys are much more likely to be killed than non-Hispanic white youth. When we look at suicides, older white males are the victims more than any other group.
Comparison with similar countries emphasizes how much of an outlier we are in the U.S. An American is 30 times more likely to die by firearm than a French citizen. Not surprisingly, in France, there are 15-20 privately-owned firearms per 100 population, while in the U.S. there are 120 per 100 people. Multiple studies have shown a tight correlation of numbers of guns in circulation and gun deaths. Within the U.S., states with tougher gun laws have significantly lower firearm mortality.
Certainly, social factors – mental health issues, including depression, poverty, lack of social supports – play a role, but these are not unique to Americans. Every country has its share of sociopaths, depressed people, and people angry at the world, but only in America is it so easy for these people to obtain a gun.
If someone tries to kill themselves with an overdose, there is a high likelihood they will be saved and then given help. Very few such people die of suicide. The “success” rate is nearly 100 percent when the method chosen is a gunshot. A fanatic can kill innocents with a knife (or their bare hands), but mass killings are almost always done with firearms.
Public opinion surveys consistently show that most Americans support tougher gun laws, but our federal legislators seem under the gun lobby’s control. We must convince our legislature that the people’s will is for sensible gun control unless we prefer to remain world champions in deaths by firearms.
Edward Hoffer is an internal medicine physician and author of Prescription for Bankruptcy: A doctor’s perspective on America’s failing health care system and how we can fix it.