Gun deaths surpassed motor vehicle deaths in 21 states plus the District of Columbia in 2014, according to a new analysis of U.S. mortality data.
The Violence Policy Center, a non-partisan gun violence research group, has found in past reports that traffic fatalities have been steadily falling due to effective regulation, such as safety prevention initiatives, improvements in vehicle and highway design, and coordinated efforts from the government and advocacy groups. Firearm-related deaths, on the other hand, have only climbed.
In this latest report, the VPC analyzed the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tallies all gun deaths, including suicides and accidents, and all fatalities in car crashes. As the number of people who die in car crashes goes down, the organization says, the number of people who die from guns remains needlessly high.
“Firearms are the only consumer product the federal government does not regulate for health and safety,” VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand said in a press release. “Meanwhile, science-based regulations have dramatically reduced deaths from motor vehicles in recent decades. It’s well past time that we regulate firearms for health and safety just like all other consumer products.”
Automobile deaths far outpaced gun deaths for years, but that gap has been closing steadily over the past decade. When VPC first compared firearm and traffic deaths in 2009, gun deaths exceeded fatal motor vehicle accidents in only 10 states. That number more than doubled in just six years, which the VPC attributes to “the failure of policymakers to acknowledge and act on this ubiquitous and too often ignored public health problem.”
According to the report, the following 21 states had more gun deaths than motor vehicle deaths in 2014: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia. The states listed in bold all received grades of ‘C’ or below on the 2015 Gun Law Scorecard, which assigns letter-grades to each state based on the strength of their gun laws. This is consistent with an extensive body of research demonstrating that states with weaker gun laws have higher rates of firearm fatalities, and vice-versa.
The VPC report isn’t the only research pointing to a convergence of the number of firearm deaths with the number of motor vehicle fatalities. In 2014, the Center for American Progress released an analysis predicting that more young Americans would die from guns than motor vehicles in 2015, which would make gun violence the nation’s leading cause of death for young people (ages 1-19). Other reports have made similar projections expanding to all age groups, suggesting that 2015 could be the first year gun deaths would outnumber automobile deaths nationwide.
Last year’s statistics aren’t available yet, but the new VPC report shows that motor vehicle deaths barely exceeded gun fatalities nationwide in 2014, with 35,647 deaths from motor vehicles and 33,599 firearm deaths. If current trends continue, gun deaths will rapidly overtake motor vehicle deaths in more and more states.
These figures are particularly striking when weighed against the fact that Americans’ exposure to motor vehicles vastly outweighs their exposure to guns. More than 90 percent of American households own a car while fewer than a third have a gun — yet deaths from these two products are on a trajectory to intersect.
Even as violent crime rates have dropped nationwide over the past two decades, the rate of violent crimes involving firearms has remained steady, according to the 2014 Small Arms Survey. Guns consistently account for about 70 percent of all annual homicides — far more than in other nations with high levels of gun ownership, such as Switzerland and Finland.
On average, 36 people are murdered with guns every day in the U.S., and an additional 55 people are killed in firearm suicides. On top of that, emergency departments in the U.S. treat more than 150 victims of non-fatal gunshot wounds every single day, contributing to the $229 billion annual pricetag of gun violence. The costs of gun violence add up to more than $700 per American each year — more than the total economic cost of obesity and almost as much as the annual price tag for the entire Medicaid program.
Clearly, current gun regulations are not working to reduce the preventable epidemic of gun violence. That’s why, as we approach the morbid milestone when gun violence kills more Americans than car accidents, the nation’s leading health and medical organizations are standing in solidarity and calling for us to start addressing this problem in the same manner as we addressed car accident deaths: from a public health perspective. Included among the professional organizations that have joined the call to approach gun violence as a public health problem are the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Public Health Association, Doctors for America, the National Physicians Alliance, the National Violence Prevention Network, and many, many other leading groups.
“We can, and must, do more [to prevent gun violence],” the American Academy of Pediatrics urged in a December 2015 policy statement. “It is not a political decision. It is a public health imperative.”
Through a combination of public health research, technological innovation, legislative change, enhanced enforcement, and transforming cultural norms, we were able to make motor vehicle transportation safer while at the same time maintaining American’s unique car culture. Strategies included systematic safety standards for the driver (like driver education and licensing, and drunk-driving laws), the vehicle (like safety glass, energy-absorbing steering wheels, air bags, and new crash-prevention technology), and the roads on which vehicles travel (like improved illumination, the addition of guardrails and barriers separating oncoming traffic lanes, and the use of breakaway signs and utility poles).
The same thing can be done with gun violence by adopting evidence-based laws and policies designed to reduce firearm-related morbidity and mortality while also protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
In theory, at least.
The problem is that, unlike car manufacturers, the gun industry — led by the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) — has been devastatingly successful in suppressing public safety research related to guns and fending off even basic regulatory standards. Back in the 1990s, the NRA and its allies in Congress stripped funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s gun violence research programs, which has seriously hampered public health efforts to study the risk and protective factors associated with gun deaths and injuries. It’s perhaps no surprise that the NRA is wary of medical research on firearms; the few researchers who have been able to conduct studies in this area have found compelling evidence that more guns lead to more murders and suicides. The NRA has also actively worked to discredit doctor’s groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics who have spoken out about the need to address gun violence as an urgent public health problem. In multiple states, the NRA has even co-sponsored legislation to stop pediatricians from asking parents about guns in the home.
While a number of Democrats in Congress have recently pushed to restore funding for the CDC’s gun violence research program, those efforts are not likely to get through Congress with the current Republican majority — making the 2016 elections even more important for those of us who value research over rhetoric, and who care more about protecting the lives of Americans than preserving the profit of the gun industry.