While 2020 will forever be remembered as the year a pandemic was declared in the U.S., a new report published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that gun violence was the leading cause of death among children and teens in that same year.
According to a letter from researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention (IFIP), this is the first time guns have been the leading cause of death in this age group. The “change was driven largely by firearm homicides, which saw a 33.4% increase,” the report reads. Gun-related suicides were up 1.1% during the same period.
In addition to an increase in gun deaths, “drug overdoses and poisoning were up by 83.6% from 2019 to 2020” in youths, making it the “third leading cause of death in that age group.”
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Dr. Jason Goldstick, a researcher with IFIP and co-author of the letter, told The Guardian, “We knew gun violence had increased, but I was surprised by the level of increase for just one year… I can’t remember ever seeing that before.”
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For more than six decades, car accidents have been the leading cause of the death of children; now they’re second to gun-related deaths.
But as child safety has gotten better in cars, “firearm deaths haven’t made much progress. … We have had a decrease in moto vehicle deaths,” Patrick Carter, one of the authors of the research letter, told NPR. "We can do the same thing with firearms. We just haven't been able to do that in the same amount of years yet. … It takes time to figure out what the underlying issues are with the problem and then finding the solutions."
The Guardian reports that for Black teen boys over 15, gun violence has been the No. 1 cause of death for nearly the last ten years.
Samantha Walton, a 17-year-old from San Francisco, told The Guardian, “We have to see that violence every day. We can’t go outside and have fun without knowing that somebody just died out there. I just wonder, ‘Damn, who’s next?’”
The report acknowledges that it is “unclear” why there’s been an increase in gun deaths among kids.
A study published in February showed an increase in new gun ownership by adults in the U.S. from Jan. 2019 to Apr. 2021. Another, published in Jul. 2021, showed an increase in “new firearm ownership” within the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic—resulting in a “surge in firearm injuries in young children.”
"Kids don’t buy firearms, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible for kids to get access," Goldstick told NBC News.
The researchers urge more funding for the “prevention of community violence.”
“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 shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death,” the authors wrote.