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Gun deaths surged to 20-year high amid pandemic, CDC reports

U.S. sees rise in gun violence
U.S. sees disturbing uptick in gun violence and mass shootings 07:32

The rate of Americans killed by guns during the first year of the pandemic surged across the country to a level not seen since 1994, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"This was the largest increase — it was a 35% increase from 2019 to 2020 – and this was the highest number of firearm homicides in 20 years," said Dr. Deb Houry, head of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 

Experts say the increase in gun deaths was unprecedented in recent decades: a report released late last month from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions analyzing the federal data described the surge in gun homicides as "the largest one-year increase in modern history." 

"Nearly 5,000 more lives were lost to gun homicide in 2020 than in 2019. Gun suicides remained at historically high levels. Guns were the leading cause of death among children and teens in 2020, accounting for more deaths than COVID-19, car crashes, or cancer," the Johns Hopkins report said.

But while virtually all demographic groups and in every region of the country saw the rate of gun homicides climb in 2020, CDC researchers found the worst increases were experienced by Americans who were younger, male, or Black. 

"Firearm homicide impacts everybody. We saw it go up in rural, small metro, and large metro areas. But it does have the highest impact, or the highest rates, in those 10 to 44, who are young Black men and young Black children," said Houry. 

The overall rate of gun homicides exceeded 6 per 100,000 people in 2020, the CDC reported, while rates of suicides with guns "remained nearly level" from 2019 to 2020. 

When broken down by race and ethnicity, both the highest rates and the biggest increases in gun homicides were among two groups: Black and American Indian people. 

At the county level, communities with the poorest residents had gun homicide rates 4.5 times larger than the counties with the fewest. Gun suicide rates in these poorest counties were also 1.3 times higher.

The rate of gun homicides among the youngest Black males in the data — 10 to 24 years old — was 21.6 times higher than White males of the same age. 

The CDC report's authors were careful to caution that the study's analysis alone could not explain why the rate of Americans killed by guns increased in 2020. But they noted there are policies that could be implemented to help reverse the trend.

Houry and the report pointed to a range of initiatives — from more affordable housing and tax credits to "greening initiatives" to improve vacant lots — that have been shown to cut down the risk of gun violence

"Violence can go down. And stressors can certainly go down. There are protective things that we can do for communities," said Houry. 

The CDC's analysis is the first from the agency to offer a "more granular" look at Americans killed by guns in federal deaths data that was finalized a few months ago, she said, examining how the spike in gun deaths during the first year of the pandemic affected different American communities. 

While the final tallies for the second year of the pandemic will not be available until much later this year, Houry warned that early figures collected by the agency — including surveillance of data from emergency rooms across 10 states — suggest that 2020 was "not a one-time blip."

"A lot of these were issues pre-pandemic and certainly the pandemic has exacerbated it," Houry said. 

Early provisional death figures collected by the CDC have counted more than 17,000 gun homicides and 22,000 suicides through October last year, she said.

"If the observed patterns continue from November and December, then we would see that both firearm homicides and suicides will likely turn out to be higher than those in 2020," added Houry. 

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