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Making Sense of Gun Death Data

Melissa Hartman

CDC’s recently released data on 2020 U.S. gun deaths show a stunning spike in gun violence in this country. Some numbers make an immediate impact: When we see 45,222 gun deaths—the highest number ever recorded—we know there’s a problem.

Other numbers require a little more analysis and context to demonstrate their significance, and that’s what A Year in Review: 2020 Gun Deaths in the U.S., a report from the Center for Gun Violence Solutions, provides. Published in April, the report provides in-depth analysis of CDC data to highlight striking differences across ages, gender, ethnicity, and U.S. states. 

In this Q&A, two of the report’s authors, Ari Davis, MPP, a DrPH student at the Bloomberg School and a policy adviser in the Center for Gun Violence Solutions, and Cassandra Crifasi, PhD ’14, MPH, the Center’s director of research and policy, talk about the report’s purpose, why the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, and which stats stood out most to them. 

How is this report different from what CDC released?

Ari Davis: The CDC data is publicly available, but this report was trying to translate that for a general audience. This report can bring in folks who didn't realize the impact that gun violence has in their community and inform them that there are effective policies out there.

Cassandra Crifasi: This report makes comparisons to things that folks may have heard more about, like motor vehicle crashes or COVID, that have public health solutions. That context can help make the data more useful and provide advocates, policymakers, community members, and other decision makers with the data that they need to advocate for change.

Was there anything that stood out to you in the CDC’s numbers?

AD: One was that gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and teens. People under 30 were nearly 10 times more likely to die by firearm than from COVID in 2020. We've invested so much in addressing COVID, as we should, but very few people are talking about the leading killer of children and teens.

CC: There were two that resonated with me. First, we saw more people dying from guns than from cars. While only about a third of U.S. households have firearms, we have people driving billions of vehicle miles—yet we have more people dying from guns than from cars.

The other data point that stands out to me is that there was an almost 50% increase in firearm homicide among Black women from 2019 to 2020. No other demographic group had a homicide rate increase this large.

Why were Black women so affected?

CC: CDC data gives you intent—if the death was a homicide, suicide, or unintentional—but it doesn't give you information on the relationship, who the perpetrator was of a homicide. We need more data to be able to know specifically what the causes are.

AD: There was a 35% spike across the board in gun homicide. We know that economic and social stressors were exacerbated during COVID. We saw services cut, like for domestic violence or those that could help interrupt or prevent violence during the shutdown. There was a lot of instability, with protests and counter-protests. All these things create the environment where violence is more likely to happen, especially among more vulnerable populations like Black Americans and women.

Can those same things explain the increase in young people being killed by guns?

CC: We know that there are things beyond the individual that can impact the likelihood that violence will occur. Access to firearms is an important contributor to that, and there were record gun sales in 2020. We have more guns in the hands of more people, and more first-time gun buyers. When there are guns in the home, the risk of homicide and suicide can increase as much as threefold. We know that there were challenges in accessing training [during the pandemic]. It’s likely that all these things together are driving the numbers we're seeing.

Can you tell me about the policies the report recommends to reduce gun deaths?

AD: The first one we recommended was purchaser licensing, or permit to purchase, which requires that someone who wants to purchase a firearm obtain a license beforehand.

CC: This is one of the policies for which we have the greatest body of evidence on its effectiveness. It is effective at reducing diversions of guns for use in crime. It's associated with lower rates of firearm homicide, including mass shootings, lower rates of firearm suicide, lower rates of people shooting police officers, and lower rates of police officers shooting other people.

AD: The next is firearm removal for domestic violence protection orders and extreme risk protection orders. If someone already has access to a firearm and is a risk or danger to themselves or others, these are methods to temporarily remove that firearm. They have been shown to be effective at reducing rates of gun homicide and suicide.

And the last one is investing in programs aimed at community violence prevention. This includes creating homicide review commissions, which help communities work with a number of different stakeholders to identify the drivers of violence and collect data and intelligence around the causes. 

CC: When we're thinking about solutions, we need programs and policies that are functioning at different levels. The licensing and the firearm removal policies are focused on the supply side: How are people buying guns? Who has them, and are they retaining them?

This third recommendation is more about the demand side: Why is it that people in certain communities may want to carry firearms for protection? Why are people using them to resolve disputes? How can we engage the community to co-create solutions to improve safety? It's really trying to come at this from that holistic approach. 

You specify in the report the difference between numbers and rates. Why does that matter?

AD: Chicago, or Cook County, has around 700 gun homicides a year, but it also has a population of over 5 million. Then you have a rural county in Arkansas, like Phillips County, that has around 10 gun homicides a year but a population of only 22,000. Based on rates, that rural county is more impacted than Chicago. We found that 13 of the 20 counties with the highest firearm homicide rates in the U.S. were rural counties. Meanwhile, Cook County had the 79th highest gun homicide rate.   

If you're only focused on the raw numbers, it can be misleading to compare counties in Illinois to counties in Arkansas. But if you put those numbers in the context of how many people live there and how many people are at risk of being killed by a firearm in those places—the rates tell a very different story. 

CC: Gun rights groups and the gun lobby push a misperception that gun violence is just a problem in urban communities. It's a much broader issue than that, and this report shines necessary light on the range of demographic groups and geographies that are impacted by different kinds of gun violence. It's not just Black males in urban areas like Baltimore or Chicago. The leading cause of [gun] death is firearm suicide, which predominantly happens among white males. It's a problem for our entire nation.

What's not in this data or this report that you would like to see in the future?

CC: I think we're only looking at the tip of the iceberg when we're looking at fatalities. We don't have the capacity to look at nonfatal injuries—and there are many more of those—which can help us even better understand the disparities, the geographic and demographic distributions.

AD: I think it would be interesting in future reports to weave in narrative. These are numbers, but they represent people. What does this actually mean on the ground for someone whose life was impacted by gun violence, or whose family was affected? 

The numbers are the data, but there are people and communities behind them, and it's important to keep that in mind.

Melissa Hartman is the managing editor of Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health magazine and associate director of editorial at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.