For most of a century, the machine most likely to kill an American has been the automobile. But today, this ignoble crown goes to a machine specifically designed for murder: the gun. According to the latest figures, firearms have now overtaken car crashes as the main cause of premature deaths due to trauma in the country.
Since the 1950s, motor vehicle fatalities have been steadily dropping year after year. For instance, in the late 1960s, there were well over 25 motor vehicle deaths for every 100,000 Americans. Since then, that rate has been halved. Over the same period, gun deaths rose, to the point that the trend lines have converged.
Seeing how firearm deaths have been steadily increasing over the past decade, researchers led by Dr. Joshua Klein, of the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, wanted to investigate whether gun-related fatalities have now truly become the main cause of premature death associated with trauma. Turns out, that was the case.
Nearly 1.5 million years of life lost: the toll of firearms in a single year
During their study, the researchers turned to data from the National Vital Statistics Reports (NVSR), an annual report that breaks down the number of deaths by cause, age, gender, and so on for each state. Using datasets between the years 2009 and 2018, the authors extracted firearm- and car crash-related deaths. But rather than comparing the number of deaths in absolute terms, the researchers thought that a more useful indicator is the potential years of life lost, calculated by subtracting the age of death from the average life expectancy of 80 years.
“The motivation behind this study started after a discussion at the time regarding the most recent CDC data once again showing an increase in firearm deaths in the United States. While it was certainly alarming that more people were dying in the United States from firearms than ever before, it only told one piece of the story. Years of potential life lost (YPLL), we believe is a better indicator in revealing the magnitude of the firearm epidemic in the USA. Calculating YPLL secondary to firearms better quantifies the economic and social losses that occur with these premature deaths,” Klein told ZME Science.
For the total 10-year study period, the cumulative years of potential life lost to car crashes amount to 12.9 million, while those for firearms added up to 12.6 million. However, since the year 2017, firearms deaths have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of traumatic death, with 1.44 million YPLL compared to 1.37 million YPLL respectively. This trend continued in 2018, when there were 83,037 more YPLL due to firearms than car crashes.
Given these latest figures, we can expect firearms to occupy this leading position for a long time to come. Firearm deaths have increased by 0.72% yearly, while car crashes deaths fell by 0.07% every year between 2009 and 2018.
While homicides have increased over the study period, from 11,493 fatalities in 2009 to 13,958 in 2018, most of the increase in firearm-related deaths can be attributed to suicides. They accounted for 18,735 trauma deaths in 2009, but rose sharply to 24,432 in 2018.
That same year, 85% of premature firearm deaths involved men. Broken down by ethnicity, white men accounted for most firearm suicides (nearly half), while firearm homicides were highest among black men (18% of all firearm deaths).
“We can see how YPLL is a better indicator in discussing the firearm epidemic simply from taking the two biggest populations affected by firearms- older white males, and younger black males. If one were to just examine the total number of deaths it would be noted that over 170,000 white male suicides occurred and just over 63,000 black male homicides occurred over this 10 year period- both astonishingly high numbers. What this number doesn’t indicate however is the true burden associated with these deaths. Calculating and incorporating YPLL reveals that, on average, black male homicides account for 50.5 YPLL whereas white male suicides account for 29.1 YPLL. By including this data, we see that despite the large disparity in total number of deaths between these two populations, due to the younger age of black male homicide victims, the YPLL are actually closer than would be expected over the study period(4.95 million YPLL vs 3.2 million YPLL),” Klein said.
Other important results from the study include:
Black men lost the most potential life years due to homicide: a cumulative total of 3.2 million, compared with 0.4 million due to firearm suicide. Most firearm homicide deaths were among 15-24 year olds.
Firearm deaths inflicted by the police or other law enforcement agents in the line of duty remained relatively static, with 333 deaths in 2009 and 539 in 2018.
Firearm suicides among women increased by 31.5% over the 10 year period; homicides rose by just under 10%. Black women lost more potential years of life to firearm homicide than to firearm suicide.
On average, firearm homicides among black men accounted for 50.5 years of potential life lost compared with just over 29 for firearm suicide among white men.
Regionally, the South had the highest cumulative total of potential years of life lost due to firearms (5.7 million), followed by the Midwest and the West. The Northeast had the lowest cumulative total: 35,789 years of life lost.
According to Dr. Klein, there are many reasons why we’re seeing this worrisome uptick in firearm deaths. One obvious factor is the abundance and low barrier of entry for guns in the United States. A 2018 study found there are now more guns than people in the United States, with more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms legally accounted for. Despite the fact they comprise just 4% of the world’s population, Americans own nearly 50% of the entire global stock of civilian firearms.
Lack of education within communities regarding firearms and mental health issues also play an important role in eroding YPLL among Americans, the researcher added.
“This was a challenging study to perform as it is a topic that has been highly politicized over the past decade. We authors strived to be completely non-partisan and to simply analyze & present the data provided by the CDC in a meaningful manner that had not been performed before. We hope that by presenting the data in this manner that it sheds more light on the populations that are truly affected in the United States and allow for better allocation of resources to these populations,” Klein concluded.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.