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Research sheds light on the dramatic rise in gun-related deaths since 2004


More than sickness or accidents, firearms are now the leading cause of death for children in America. A new study published by a journal from the American Medical Association finds that since 2004, gun-related deaths rose by over 45% overall. The study in JAMA Network Open also looked at who is most affected by both homicides and suicides using firearms. Researcher Eric Fleegler is an author of the study, and he joins us now. Welcome.

ERIC FLEEGLER: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: You were looking back at more than 30 years of data. What trends stood out to you over that period of time?

FLEEGLER: What we see over time - in the 1990s, fatality rates were high, and they started to come down. And they came down into the - during the 2000s, to about 10 per 100,000, which is a high number. But it stayed stable for about 15 years. And then, they started to rise and - in particular around 2014, started to go up. But what was really striking to us was just how much this has accelerated. And in particular, in the last two years, we have seen an over 25% increase in firearm deaths in our country and, specifically, over 40% increase in firearm homicides and about a 17% increase in firearm suicides.

MCCAMMON: And you look at how these firearm deaths affect specific populations, specific groups. So in the past decade, you find that homicide rates for Black women in particular have tripled. The rates of suicide by firearm for white men have increased by more than 40%. And the rate for women as a whole is also rising.

FLEEGLER: Some of the really important information that we found, just as you alluded to, in particular, includes, like, the disparities. The numbers that are quite striking when it comes to firearm homicides is, in particular, among young Black men. So young Black men between the ages of 20 and 24 are dying at a rate of about 141 per 100,000. That's in contrast to young white men of the same age where it's about 6 per 100,000. That difference - that's a 22-fold increase among Black men versus white men.

MCCAMMON: To what do you attribute that huge disparity and that just, you know, overwhelming number of homicide deaths related to firearms among young Black men? What's driving that?

FLEEGLER: A lot of these types of fatalities are occurring in urban areas, and they occur particularly in areas with high concentrations of poverty. Some of this goes back to issues of structural racism, how, over time, our society has evolved where you have Black families live (ph) in areas with very high concentrations of poverty. So that is certainly part of the issue. It's not the only one. When we think about homicides in particular, this is not just about gang violence. This is often interpersonal violence between people who know one another. And so there's all different reasons that lead to these rates of people dying.

MCCAMMON: Sticking with men for a moment, what might be driving the high rate of suicide among older white men?

FLEEGLER: The most common reason somebody dies by gun is access to a gun. The rates of ownership of firearms are highest among white households. Children, young adults who die by firearm suicide, they're almost always using guns that were available in their own homes. And so having guns either kept outside of the home, having a gun stored locked up and locked up separate from the ammunition - also locked up - and locked up in a way that the child can't access it is a significant step forward for making things safer.

Among older people who are the owners of these guns, one of the major things that have been moving forward in our country are the red flag laws, or ERPO laws, that say that you can help get a gun out of the house if somebody is an imminent risk to themself. So if you really want to think about why the fatalities are happening and how do you reduce them, there are two sides of the same coin to try to reduce the access.

MCCAMMON: Men are still more likely to die of gun violence than women. But your study documented a really substantial increase in the rate of gun deaths especially, again, among Black women. What might be going on there?

FLEEGLER: We don't know precisely why it is that this has increased with Black women, but it has increased actually with all women. And that's an important thing. When you think about homicide associated with women, the majority of the time, it is an intimate partner who has caused this. There are laws that forbid people who have domestic violence restraining orders from holding those guns. However, those laws are very different across the country. And so the variability in how these guns are owned is going to be a significant contributor to whether women end up dying by domestic violence.

MCCAMMON: You know, one of the lessons of the midterm elections was that for all of the fearmongering around crime and violence in some of these political campaigns, the data can be more complex than the picture some politicians would try to paint. Where does your study fit into the overall picture of violence in the U.S.? And what more research do you think needs to be done?

FLEEGLER: The important takeaway is - people need to be aware of is just that though firearm violence has been a problem in our country going back decades, it is really on the increase. The numbers are quite real right now. If you went back 10 years ago, you would see that roughly 30,000 people a year were dying by guns. In 2021, it's over 48,000 people who have died by firearms. And that's a shockingly high number. We need to think as a society, how do we approach gun violence?

In the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, a major cause of fatalities in our country was motor-vehicle crashes. And there was somewhat thought of an inevitability that, you know, people are going to die in motor vehicles and, you know, it's probably people's fault. But researchers and the government eventually said, that's not the way we need to think about this, and we need to study what's going on with motor-vehicle crashes. We need to look at the data. We need to make changes.

And what did these changes do? They led to seatbelts and then seatbelt laws. They led to airbags and mandates around having them. They led to changes on our highways and all sorts of attitudinal changes about drunk driving. And what have we seen? We've seen a significant, enormous reduction in motor-vehicle crashes. What we didn't do is say, you can't have a car, and we take away the cars because people are dying. We need to think about guns in the same way.

MCCAMMON: That's researcher Eric Fleegler. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FLEEGLER: Thank you very much for having me.


Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.