Gun-related fatalities have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of deaths from physical trauma, according to new research. In recent years, more lives—and years of life—were lost to firearms than to motor vehicles. The majority of these deaths involved suicide, particularly among older white men, but Black Americans were more likely to die from gun-related homicide.
Traumatic injuries are thought to be the leading cause of death among Americans ages 46 and younger, and motor vehicle fatalities have long been considered the top culprit. But over the past decade, there has been a noticeable increase in firearm deaths, which made the researchers behind this new study wonder if that distinction was still true. To find out, they sifted through the latest available mortality data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 through 2018.
For most of this time period, yearly car deaths continued to outnumber firearm deaths. But by 2018, guns were on top. That year, nearly 39,000 Americans were killed by guns, while less than 38,000 died in a motor vehicle crash. The team’s findings were published Tuesday in Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open.
“Although deaths from [motor vehicle crashes] used to be the single largest cause of traumatic death” in the U.S., the authors wrote, “firearms have now surpassed it.”
The researchers also attempted to calculate the years of potential life lost, which subtracts the age when someone dies from their expected mortality, in this case age 80. In 2017, the team calculated that 1.44 million years of life were lost to firearms, compared with 1.37 million years lost to cars, and the gap grew even larger the next year. Measuring these lost years provides a clearer picture of the impact caused by gun deaths, according to study author Joshua Klein.
“Years of potential life lost, we believe, is a better indicator in revealing the magnitude of the firearm epidemic in the United States,” Klein, a trauma surgeon at the Westchester Medical Center in New York, told Gizmodo in an email. “Calculating years of potential life lost secondary to firearms better quantifies the economic and social losses that occur with these premature deaths.”
As other data has shown, the lion’s share of these gun deaths involved men (85% in 2018). But there were distinct patterns seen across different groups. About half of all gun deaths in 2018 were related to suicide and tended to involve older white men, for instance, and about 18% of deaths were related to homicides, which accounted for the bulk of deaths among Black men, who often died younger as well. Both gun-related suicides and homicides rose during the 10-year period, while deaths officially attributed to police shootings increased from 333 in 2009 to 539 in 2018. Official numbers on police shootings aren’t necessarily accurate, however. For instance, reporting by the Washington Post has found that U.S. police have shot and killed around a thousand Americans a year since 2016, including 1,021 people in 2020 and 1,055 people in 2021.
It’s likely that trends for both car crashes and firearm deaths haven’t improved in the last few years. Since the pandemic began, there has been an increase of risky driving, while reported shootings have gone up in major cities as well. That said, suicides in general seem to have actually lowered during the first year of the pandemic, and gun violence may have declined in 2021. Klein and his team are still waiting for the CDC data to come in to keep tracking these numbers, though.
The findings, the authors say, indicate that more has to be done to reduce the harms caused by guns—an admittedly difficult task in a country with more firearms than people and an aggressive political lobbying front dead set against any form of reform.
“Deaths related to firearms are potentially preventable causes of death and prevention efforts should be redirected,” the authors wrote.
Added Klein: “I think the real take home message of this study is that firearm related deaths in the United States continue to rise at an alarming pace and that firearms are now the leading cause of years of potential life lost due to trauma.”
This article has been updated with comments from Joshua Klein.