Guns Have Overtaken Cars as Leading Cause of Traumatic Deaths in the U.S.

Guns Have Overtaken Cars as Leading Cause of Traumatic Deaths in the U.S.
Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP, Getty Images

Gun-related fatalities have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of deaths from physical trauma, according to new research. In recent years, more lives — and years of life — were lost to firearms than to motor vehicles. The majority of these deaths involved suicide, particularly among older white men, but Black Americans were more likely to die from gun-related homicide.

Traumatic injuries are thought to be the leading cause of death among Americans ages 46 and younger, and motor vehicle fatalities have long been considered the top culprit. But over the past decade, there has been a noticeable increase in firearm deaths, which made the researchers behind this new study wonder if that distinction was still true. To find out, they sifted through the latest available mortality data collected by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 through 2018.

For most of this time period, yearly car deaths continued to outnumber firearm deaths. But by 2018, guns were on top. That year, nearly 39,000 Americans were killed by guns, while around 37,000 died in a motor vehicle crash.

The researchers also attempted to calculate the years of potential life lost, which subtracts the age when someone dies from their expected mortality, in this case age 80. In 2017, the team calculated that 1.44 million years of life were lost to firearms, compared with 1.37 million years lost to cars, and the gap grew even larger the next year. The team’s findings were published Tuesday in Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open.

“Although deaths from [motor vehicle crashes] used to be the single largest cause of traumatic death” in the U.S., the researchers wrote, “firearms have now surpassed it.”

As other data has shown, the lion’s share of these gun deaths involved men (85% in 2018). But there were distinct patterns seen across different groups. About half of all gun deaths in 2018 were related to suicide and tended to involve older white men, for instance, and about 18% of deaths were related to homicides, which accounted for the bulk of deaths among Black men, who often died younger as well. Both gun-related suicides and homicides rose during the 10-year period, while deaths officially attributed to police shootings increased from 333 in 2009 to 539 in 2018. Official numbers aren’t necessarily accurate, however, and reporting by the Washington Post found that U.S. police shot and killed 1,021 people in 2020 and 1,055 people in 2021.

It’s likely that trends for both car crashes and firearm deaths haven’t improved in the last few years. Since the pandemic began, there has been an increase of risky driving, while reported shootings have gone up in major cities as well. That said, suicides in general seem to have actually lowered during the first year of the pandemic, and gun violence may have declined in 2021.

The findings, the authors say, indicate that more has to be done to reduce the harms caused by guns — an admittedly difficult task in a country with more firearms than people and an aggressive political lobbying front dead set against any form of reform.

“Deaths related to firearms are potentially preventable causes of death and prevention efforts should be redirected,” the authors wrote.