Gun violence becomes leading cause of death among US youth, data shows

A report reveals a 30% increase in firearm-related deaths between 2019 and 2020, including incidents of suicides and accidental shootings

Gun violence overtook car accidents as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the US in 2020, according to a report from the University of Michigan.

The finding was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday as part of longer term research effort from the university’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention (IFIP).

An analysis of mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed a nearly 30% increase in gun-related deaths among Americans up to age 19 between 2019 and 2020, the researchers said. These deaths include incidents of suicide, accidental shootings and homicides, with homicides outpacing the other two categories.

The number of deaths from car accidents and gun homicides among infants, children and young adults has been growing closer since 2016. Drug overdoses and poisoning increased by more than 80% between 2019 and 2020, the researchers found, to become the third leading cause of death among this demographic.

“We knew gun violence had increased but I was surprised by the level of increase for just one year,” said Dr Jason Goldstick, a researcher with IFIP and associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan. “I can’t remember ever seeing that before.”

The rise in shooting deaths among the nation’s youngest is part of a larger increase in homicides in that same time period. Gun homicides across the US rose 33% in 2020, according to the study. This increase was disparately felt by Black Americans, who despite making up 14% of the US population accounted for nearly half of the nation’s homicide victims, according to FBI data released in the fall of 2021.

Although 2020 marked the first year that more children and teens were killed by guns than in car accidents, gun violence has been the number one cause of death among Black teenage boys over 15 for at least a decade, according to CDC data.

And these teens weren’t dying in high profile mass shootings on school campuses or malls. Rather, many of them lost their lives in homes where guns were present and unsecured and in the neighborhoods they grew up in.

A man and a woman stand in the back yard of their home next to a life-size cardboard cutout of their son.
LaTanya and Andre Robinson Sr hold a cutout photo of their late son, Andre Robinson Jr, who was killed by gunfire in November 2020. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/Marissa Leshnov for The Guardian

One of the young people killed in 2020 was Andre Robinson Jr, who was 19 when he was shot in the back on 8 November while delivering breakfast to his girlfriend’s Oakland, California, home. Another was Aaron Pryor, a football player who was shot and killed in the same city on 27 September, less than a month after his 16th birthday.

California teens told the Guardian in December 2021 the rise in shootings had rocked their communities. They expressed paranoia, sadness and hopelessness over the loss of their peers to gun violence, both as victims and as those caught up in the cycle of shootings.

“We have to see that violence everyday. We can’t go outside and have fun without knowing that somebody just died out there. I just wonder, ‘Damn, who’s next?’” said Samantha Walton, a 17 year-old from San Francisco. “Nothing should be so serious to where everybody is just killing each other. We’ve got like little kids, sisters and brothers out here that don’t even make it to 18.”

“These numbers are horrible, especially because these are such preventable deaths, but until very recently research has been chronically underfunded,” said Goldstick, the University of Michigan researcher. “Our ultimate message is that a public health approach to violence prevention can work, but only if you fill in the evidence base and to do that, you need funding.”


Abené Clayton in Los Angeles

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