Firearms surpass motor vehicles as leading cause of death among kids, UM researchers say

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Firearms-related injuries have become the leading cause of death among youth for the first time, according to an analysis of federal data by University of Michigan researchers.

The analysis, based on Centers for Disease Control mortality data from 2020 and published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that firearm-related deaths among children and adolescents age 1 to 19 increased 29% from 2019 to 2020.

That jump caused firearm deaths among youth to eclipse motor vehicle deaths, which had been the leading cause of death among youth and adults since the 1950s, said Dr. Patrick Carter, co-director of UM's Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. He co-authored the analysis with UM researchers Jason Goldstick and Rebecca Cunningham.

More than 4,300 U.S. kids ages 1-19 died as the result of firearms in 2020, which included suicides, homicides and unintentional deaths. Vehicles crashes caused about 3,900 deaths in individuals ages 1-19 that year. Drug poisoning deaths rose more than 83% — surpassing 1,700 total deaths — and was the third-leading cause of death that year.

Carter said the rise in gun deaths shows the disparity in research between firearm and vehicle use.

"We have applied rigorous, evidence-based research to injury prevention in the field of motor vehicle crash injury,” said Carter, an associate professor in the UM's emergency medicine and health behavior and health education departments.

"We have built safer cars. We have built safer roads. We have changed driver behavior around things like drinking and driving, we’ve taught our teens how to drive better and in safer ways," Carter continued. "That comprehensive approach has really had a marked effect on decreasing motor vehicle crashes injuries over the past 50 years.”

That same evidence-based research has not occurred around firearms injury prevention.

"We haven't really seen any progress on this, and we are now starting to see the effects of this," said Carter. "The Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention is starting to move forward research that approaches this problem by using that same paradigm used for motor vehicle crash injury and other type of injury, applying rigorous research."

The federal government has started to fund this type of research again, Carter said.

Research has been lacking in this area because of a lack of funding due to the Dickey Amendment, which essentially banned federal funding in 1996 to "advocate or promote gun control." It was reinstated in 2019 and has been increasing.

A 2019 study by UM researchers showed the differences in funding for various types of research.

"On average, in the study period, $88 million per year was granted to research motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of death in this age group. Cancer, the third-leading cause of mortality, received $335 million per year. In contrast, $12 million — only thirty-two grants, averaging $597 in research dollars per death — went to firearm injury prevention research among children and adolescents," according to the study.  

UM had previously looked at the CDC data in 2016, Carter said, and showed that firearms deaths among young people were the second-leading cause of death, only behind motor vehicle deaths. It was the first analysis to assess where firearms fell in the hierarchy of leading causes of death for children and teens, Carter said.

The most recent analysis is an update to the 2016 analysis.

"The increasing rates of firearm mortality are a longer-term trend and demonstrate that we continue to fail to protect our youngest population from a preventable cause of death," said Goldstick, research associate professor of emergency medicine at Michigan Medicine and of health behavior and health education at the UM School of Public Health.

“Recent investments in firearm injury prevention research by the CDC and National Institutes of Health, in addition to community violence prevention funding in the federal budget, are a step in the right direction, but this momentum must continue if we truly want to break this alarming trend,” he added.

The institute was created last year when UM committed $10 million "to generate new knowledge and advance innovative solutions to reduce firearm injuries and deaths, while respecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to legally own firearms."