UPDATED: Thoughts on the New England Journal of Medicine Letter about Gun deaths for “Children or Adolescents” being the leading cause of death

Apr 23, 2022 | Public Health

Here are the numbers for those under 20, but there are some issues with the accuracy of these numbers.

UPDATE: The New England Journal of Medicine has a letter making the claim that children are more likely to die from guns than any other cause. The piece contains many misleading or false claims. Their measure of deaths from guns primarily involves homicides from the the CDC, which produces a much larger number than the FBI UCR data. For example, in 2020, there were 1,623 homicides for those under 20 years of age according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report and 2,811 according to the CDC.

If you look at just those under 18, what most would classify as children and adolescents, the total number of deaths for the FBI UCR is 963 and the CDC number is 1,376.

Their comparison with traffic accidents involving cars ignores other motor vehicle acccidents as well as cars hitting pedestrians or bicycles.

Their measure of defining children for everyone 19 and under is crucial because there is a lot of gang violence for 17, 18, and 19 year olds. The notion that banning guns is going to stop this drug gang violence is simply not serious. You are going to as successful in stopping gangs from getting guns as you are from stopping them from getting illegal drugs to sell.

Defining children is as including people who are 18 and 19 has been a common approach by gun control advocates. It is common that 75 to 80 percent of firearm injuries for those under 20 involve 17, 18, and 19 year olds.

Among the other false statements in the letter, is the claim that “firearm violence has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic,” at least in the data through 2020. Actually, between 2019 and 2020, gun crimes reported to police actually fell by 27% (Table 8)The National Crime Victimization Survey also finds a similar 27% drop.

ORIGINAL RELATED POST (January 2017): Remember when The Economist magazine had the headline in January 2015: “A gun is now more likely to kill you than a car is.”  News organization after news made a claim similar to The Atlantic in early 2015: “Gun deaths are poised to surpass automobile deaths in the United States this year.

The claim that total automobile deaths have fallen relative to firearm deaths can be seen in this figure, though it is also clear that the drop occurred during the recession of 2008 and 2009 (part of that drop is due in part to some reduction in driving).  Gun control advocates include firearm homicides and not firearm murders in their numbers, which don’t really make a lot of sense to us because homicides include justifiable homicides (self defense by police or civilians).  So these first two graphs show the numbers with homicides and then with murders.  With murders, the difference between motor vehicle and firearm deaths equals almost 5,900.

The types of deaths by cause show that auto accidents are overwhelmingly accidental deaths and those by firearms are suicides.

There are two problems with the claim that regulations are responsible for the drop in accidental motor vehicle deaths .  First, virtually the entire drop occurred in two years during the recession (2008 and 2009) and it is hard to think of any new regulations that would produce such a sudden and large drop (most regulations would have a gradual impact over time has new cars with those features made up a greater and greater share of the cars on the road).  Most likely the drop occurred because of changing driving habits (such as some reduction in how much people drove).  It is because of this point that we are unlikely to see firearm deaths exceed motor vehicle deaths in 2015.

The long sustained high gasoline prices since the beginning of the Obama administration also had an impact.  From the beginning of 2011 until the end of November 2014, the price of gasoline never fell before $3.00 a gallon.  One has to go back to the beginning of the Obama administration to find gas prices as low as they have now gone.  The new lower prices of gas at about $2 will probably also increase driving distances, particularly if the prices stay low for a while.

Second, the drop in accidental firearm deaths fell almost twice as much as the drop in accidental motor vehicle deaths, but gun control advocates are claiming that there were no new firearm regulations.

The increase in firearm deaths is due to the increase in firearm suicides (accidents fell, homicides and murders were essentially flat from 2000 to 2014 (they rose by about 18.5% from 2014 to 2015), and suicides increased by 33%), but this doesn’t seem like a problem with firearms per se as the increase in non-firearm suicides was twice as large as the increase in firearm suicides.  Automobile suicides were small to begin with, but they soared by 53% (rising from 103 to 1741).

As to the claim that background checks are the great regulation that will save lives, the discussion ignores all the research that fails to find that these regulations reduce crime rates.  In addition, the discussion ignores who the background checks actually do stop — overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens.

If we had space in the letter, there were other errors in their article that could have been included.  For example, the article claims that “the actual rate of gun ownership is declining” is presumably based on one survey — the General Social Science survey.  The GSS survey is the outlier in terms of gun ownership rates.



  1. Fred Miller

    Very interesting piece! Why did you put the keys to the chart opposite to how they appear in the graph? (upper graph denoted by lower key, etc)


    • johnrlott

      Does it matter? The key tells you which line is which and it seems pretty clear to me. If you ever use Excel you know that you can change that by rearranging the order of the columns, but I wanted to get this done quickly and simply didn’t have the time to re-order the columns. Thanks.


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