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Firearm Deaths Hold Steady After Record-Setting 2017

James Gathany
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The exterior of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention building in Atlanta.

A near-record number of Americans died by gunshot in 2018 according tothe latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to a CDC spokesperson, nearly 40,000 people died by firearm in America, including suicide, homicide and accidents. The rate of firearm deaths dipped slightly between 2017 and 2018, going from 12 to 11.9 per 100,000 people.

Those numbers areage-adjusted, meaning researchers controlled for differences in the distribution of various age groups, which can affect mortality rates.

In 2017, 39,773 people died by firearm, the highest number of firearm deaths recorded since the CDC started tracking them in 1979. 

In 2018, an almost identical 39,741 people died by firearm.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg is the former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and says the numbers show the government must invest more in gun violence research.

“It’s shocking because we lose 40,000 people a year to gun deaths and almost all of these gun deaths are preventable,” he said.

However, Rosenberg says he’s encouraged by recent willingness of Congress to appropriate federal money for gun violence research.

How gun deaths impact Americans' life expectancy

Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the country. The top 10 leading causes of mortality remained the same in 2018 (in order of prevalence):

  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Unintentional injuries
  4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
  5. Stroke
  6. Alzheimer disease
  7. Diabetes
  8. Influenza and pneumonia
  9. Kidney disease
  10. Suicide

A 2019 study ofCDC data published in the medical journal JAMA found “a major contributor” to the increase in mortality among young and middle-aged adults is drug overdoses, organ system diseases and suicides.

Deaths from illnesses like heart disease dwarf the gun death numbers, but because of the demographics of gun death victims it can have outsize effects, according to Dr. Bob Anderson is chief of the mortality statistics branch at The National Center for Health Statistics.

“These gun deaths tend to affect a younger population overall so in the context of life expectancy and premature mortality, they’re quite significant,” he said.

Suicide and guns

In 2018, the number of suicides in the U.S. increased, continuing a multi-year trend.

The national age-adjusted rate ticked up slightly in 2018, going from 14 to 14.2 per 100,000 people.

State-level data for 2018 is not yet available, but in 2017 the suicide rate in Kansas was 19.1 per 100,000 people. In Missouri it was 18.5.

A firearm is by far the most common method of suicide,accounting for about 50% of the total number of suicides nationwide. And suicides account for, by far,the most firearms deaths.

But that relationship is oftenoverlooked.

A 2019national poll from APM Research Lab, Call To Mind and Guns & America found that the vast majority of Americans were unaware that suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths, overestimating the impact of mass shootings and other homicides on the numbers.

And while these numbers are a national total, existing research has found suicide rates tend to be higher instates with higher rates of gun ownership.

Increasing gun regulations have become abig topic on the campaign trail, as a crowded field of Democrats is vying for the 2020 presidential nomination.

Compared to other wealthy countries, America has much higher rates of gun ownership andastronomically higher rates of gun deaths.

Future findings

The report comes shortly after Congress agreed tofund federal gun violence research for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. In December, Congressional leaders agreed to include $25 million each for CDC and The National Institutes of Health to study gun violence in a spending agreement.

Before that, gun violence research had been effectively halted by the passage in 1996 of something known asthe Dickey Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of any research that promoted gun control. That vague language, while not outright banning gun violence research, had a chilling effect.

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