Looking at the false claim that firearms are the leading cause of death for children or teens

May 25, 2023 | Fact Check, Original Research

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From a Twitter Post on June 17, 2023
Kamala Harris: “The number one cause of death of the children in America is gun violence.”

As we have previously discussed, a common claim is that firearms are the leading cause of death for “children or adolescents.” On June 2nd, Vice President Kamala Harris claimed: “The number one cause of death of the children in America is gun violence.” On April 16, 2023, Biden spoke out on this claiming: “Guns are the leading killer of children in America, and the numbers are rising – not declining.” He tweeted it out again the next day: “Guns are the leading killer of children in America, and the numbers are rising.” It received 2.3 million views. That claim is clearly false. Homicide data is used here, but homicides involve both murders and justifiable homicides, and it is hardly obvious why justifiable homicides should be included here. Doing so inflates the total number of firearm-related deaths, but put that concern aside. 

For those under 18, vehicle deaths are consistently greater than those from firearms. For those under 20, firearm deaths exceed vehicle deaths for 2020 and 2021 when you use the CDC firearm homicide data. When you use the FBI homicide data, the vehicle deaths exceed the firearm deaths for 2019 and 2020, and likely 2021, though the FBI data isn’t available for that year. The bottom line is that about 1/3rd of the firearm deaths for those under 20 involve homicide, where the victims are 18 and 19 years old. About another 20% of involve homicides for 15, 16, and 17-year-olds. These deaths are largely gang-related and even banning guns is unlikely to stop drug gangs from getting a hold of guns to protect their extremely valuable drugs.

Using the CDC firearm homicide data, about 5% of the deaths for those under 18 involve accidents and 34% suicides.

Suffocation deaths for those under 18 are greater than total firearm deaths using the FBI numbers in both 2019 and 2020 (2,253 and 2,110). Total firearm deaths are greater for those under 20 than from suffocation.

Suicides should also be excluded because the common claim is that if guns are eliminated, people either won’t try to commit suicide or cannot do it successfully. Yet, in places where guns are banned, total suicide rates remain unchanged — people change how they commit suicide. Excluding firearm suicides would reduce numbers from the CDC by 30 to 35 percent. With the FBI murder data, firearm suicides make up 38 to 42 percent of the total. So, for example, in 2020, for those under 20, removing suicides would reduce the number of firearm deaths using the numbers from the CDC from 4,253 to 2,960 and using the FBI murder rate data from 3,405 to 2,112. There are many other very effective ways to commit suicide, such as hanging, walking in front of a train, jumping from a height, using explosives, or cyanide (source here). More on suicides available here.

As to accidental gun deaths involving children, over the ten years from 2011 to 2020, there was an average of 43 deaths per year for children under 10. Over that period for children under 18, it averaged 92 accidental gun deaths a year. For those under 10, earlier research showed about 2/3rds of those accidentally shot to death were shot by adult males, usually in their late 20s who have violent criminal records and are drug addicts or alcoholics. Presumably, since these individuals are illegally owning guns, it is unlikely that even banning guns would have a big impact on the rate of these accidental gun shots.


For those under 18, total vehicle deaths are over 35% greater than firearm deaths from murder, suicides, and accidents. Even when you use homicides instead of murders, which includes justifiable homicides, vehicle deaths are 10% greater.

When you look at deaths for those under 20, firearm deaths from murder, suicides, and accidents were less than vehicle deaths in 2019 and 2020 (the FBI data on murder for those ages wasn’t available yet for 2021). Firearm deaths from homicides, suicides, and accidents exceeded vehicle deaths in 2020 and 2021, but it was driven by the difference between the CDC measure of homicides and the FBI measure of murder. Even if you use the CDC numbers on homicides, the results are driven by 18- and 19-year-olds likely to be involved in gang violence.

An Excel file with the data is available here.




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