Rates of firearm-related homicides and suicides spiked among children and young adults during the first year of the pandemic, contributing to the highest firearm homicide rate the overall U.S. population has seen since 1994, according to a new report.
Increases in firearm deaths had disproportionate impacts based on race and poverty level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found, and health officials are urging swift action to prevent deaths.
“These deaths have devastating effects on families, schools, entire communities and have lasting consequences for us as individuals and as a society,” Thomas R. Simon, Ph.D., associate director for science in the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention, said in a news conference Tuesday.
About 79% of homicides in 2020 involved a firearm, according to the CDC report. There were 19,350 firearm homicides that year, up from 14,392 in 2019. The rate also increased nearly 35% from 4.6 to 6.1 firearm homicides per 100,000 people.
Firearm homicides increased 41% for children under 10 years and 39% among those ages 10-24.
Black people experienced a 39% increase in firearm homicides in 2020. Combining race, age and sex, the largest increases were among Black males ages 10-44 and American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) males ages 25-44.
The data show firearm homicide deaths among Black males ages 10-24 in 2020 were nearly 22 times as high as the rate for White males in the same age group. In addition, counties with the highest poverty level had firearm homicide rates that were nearly five times as high as counties with the lowest poverty level. While about one-quarter of people live in impoverished communities, these rates are significantly higher for AI/AN, Black and Hispanic people.
About 53% of suicides in 2020 involved a firearm, according to the CDC report. There were 24,245 such deaths in 2020, up from 23,888 the year before. The rate of 8.1 per 100,000 people was up slightly from 7.9 per 100,000 people. However, some age and racial groups experienced substantial increases.
Youths ages 10-24 years experienced the largest increase in firearm suicide rates of any age group at 15%, although their rate remained the lowest. Across all ages, AI/AN people experienced a 42% increase in firearm suicides.
Causes for increases, disparities
While the study wasn’t designed to determine the causes of firearm homicide and suicide increases, CDC experts said job loss, housing instability, social isolation and disruptions to health services and education during the pandemic likely contributed. They also cited increases in firearm purchases and intimate partner violence and strains in the relationship between police and communities. The pandemic also has widened existing disparities.
“Long-standing systemic inequities and structural racism limit economic, housing and educational opportunities,” Dr. Simon said. “They contribute to unfair and avoidable health disparities among some racial and ethnic groups.”
Firearm death prevention
CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra E. Houry, M.D., M.P.H., said reducing firearm deaths “requires a comprehensive approach focused on reducing inequities.”
Experts highlighted the need to increase employment opportunities, provide subsidies for housing and child care, curb substance use and suicide attempts, encourage help-seeking, provide mentoring, enhance green spaces, teach coping and problem-solving skills, enact legislation to keep children from accessing guns and increase research.
The CDC also called on physicians to increase counseling of families on firearm safety and storage. The AAP recommends families with children do not keep guns in the home. Those who do should keep them locked and unloaded. Ammunition should be locked separately. For years, the AAP has been advocating for legislation to help reduce firearm injuries and deaths and providing pediatricians with guidance on protecting children (see resources).
“Firearm deaths are preventable, not inevitable,” Dr. Houry said. “And everyone has a role to play in prevention.”
- AAP policy Firearm-Related Injuries Affecting the Pediatric Population
- AAP policy Role of the Pediatrician in Youth Violence Prevention
- AAP clinical report Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents
- AAP information in gun safety and injury prevention
- Information for parents from HealthyChildren.org on reducing gun injuries
- AAP News stories about firearms
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255