The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 15, 2022 1:00 am

The numbers are in

New CDC research quantifies depth of US gun violence

JEFF KOVALESKI | The Journal Gazette

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday reported a 35% escalation in the U.S. firearm homicide rate in 2020 over 2019, the highest rate since 1994. Guns were used in 79% of all homicides and 53% of all suicides two years ago, the CDC said.

The spike in the murder-by-gun rate and surge in firearm suicides among some groups has expanded already-existing racial and ethnic disparities, according to the new analysis.

The CDC report follows a research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine April 20. That letter found firearms were the leading cause of death among children and teens in 2020. More than 4,300 were killed in gun-related incidents that year – a 29% increase from 2019.

Twelve children and teens between the ages of 1 and 19 died from gunshots in Allen County in 2020, the coroner's office said in an email. The previous year, three within that age group lost their lives as a result of firearms.

“From a data perspective, without the qualifiers of whether this is suicide, homicide or accidental, you can't really draw conclusions about this,” said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “Because each of those has a different causation. Suicide or self-harm looks very different from a homicide, as compared to an accidental shooting that results in a fatality.

“But I think we can safely say that less access, reduced access to firearms, is likely to reduce suicide and homicides,” Blakeman continued. “That seems like a plausible conclusion that we can draw.”

Every day in the U.S., guns take a muffled toll in small towns and big cities. They contribute to violent crime, domestic violence, accidental injury and suicide. About 40,000 Americans – 109 per day – die from gunshots each year, CDC statistics show.

Despite that savage cost, the agency didn't research firearm violence or gun-injury prevention for 24 years. That's because an appropriations bill passed by Congress in 1996 said “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

The amendment didn't ban research on gun violence, but federal agencies didn't know what was allowed. Federal firearm studies consequently stopped. In 2018, Congress said the 1996 amendment applied specifically to gun control advocacy and doesn't prevent the CDC from funding research on violence from firearms.

That clarification resulted in the CDC report released Tuesday. The agency scrutinized how death rates involving guns changed in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Its findings were alarming, with increases in death rates in each region of the nation and in every age group.

The CDC report says in 2019 the firearm homicide rate for Black boys and men between the ages of 10 and 24 was 20.6 times the rate among white boys and men in the same age range. By 2020 that imbalance had grown, with the rate among Black men and boys in that age group 21.6 times the rate for white men and boys.

Black people and American Indian or Alaska Native people had the highest gun homicide rates in 2020 and the largest percentage increase over the previous year, according to the CDC, which found poverty an obvious dividing line. U.S. counties with the highest poverty rates in 2020 “had firearm homicide and firearm suicide rates that were 4.5 and 1.3 times as high, respectively, as counties with the lowest poverty level,” the report said.

Paul Helmke, former president and CEO of the Brady Center/Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and three-term mayor of Fort Wayne, is a professor of practice at Indiana University's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the founding director of the school's Civic Leaders Living-Learning Center. He said an increase in deaths by firearms correlates with an increase in the number of firearms in an area.

“Generally, more guns in a home, city, county or state means more gun deaths in that home, city, county or state,” Helmke said last week. “Gun sales increased significantly in 2020, so it is not surprising that there has been an increase in gun deaths in many age categories.”

Like Purdue Fort Wayne's Blakeman, Helmke said more research needs to be done on gun deaths and injuries in the U.S.

“From the mid-'90s until just recently, Congress would not allow the CDC or (National Institute of Health) or other government-funded groups to do any research on gun violence prevention-related issues,” he said. “We need to consider gun violence as a public health issue, as well as a public safety issue.”

Last week's CDC report calls shooting deaths a “persistent and significant” public health issue. Data from 2020 “heightened the urgency of actions that can have immediate and lasting benefits,” the agency said.

“States could require safe storage laws for guns,” Helmke said. “I would not be surprised that many gun deaths for young people come after finding an unsecured gun in the home. States could also make gun owners responsible at some level for injuries caused by guns they leave unsecured.”

The CDC, too, suggests improving gun storage. It also advocates that governments focus on populations at higher risk for violence by adopting policies that provide more financial aid to those groups, as poverty is a potent factor. And it endorses renovating vacant buildings and offering more green spaces, saying research has found such enhancements lower the risk of gun violence in a community.

“CDC increases the health security of our nation,” its mission statement reads. “As the nation's health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats. To accomplish our mission, CDC conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise.”

Is gun violence not a “dangerous health threat” in America?

Cold, hard facts should always be welcome in a debate as serious as the one over gun violence. There will be intractable positions on both sides. But without the needed data in hand, neither advocates nor opponents of easily accessible firearms can have an intelligent discussion on the issue. The CDC is uniquely qualified to do this research, and the nation needs more such research if we're to reduce needless gun deaths.

Jeff Kovaleski is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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