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Guns Are Now the Leading Cause of Child Mortality - AdobeStock 132494112

Guns are now the leading cause of death among American children under age 19. The number of firearm deaths has surpassed deaths from car accidents. (NEJM)

NH: A few months ago, the CDC published the final death data for 2020. And the child mortality numbers tell a grim story: The crude death rate for adolescents (aged 1-19) rose from 15.07 deaths per 100,000 children to 17.93. That's a +19.0% YoY increase. 

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine broke down the data by cause of death. The researchers sorted the data unconventionally to make a politically relevant point: Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and teens.

Typically, gun deaths are divided up into subcategories of other causes of death--like homicide or suicide or accidents. Here the researchers are grouping together any deaths involving guns.

So with that caveat, let's explore the numbers.  

Guns Are Now the Leading Cause of Child Mortality - Jun7 

In 2020, there were 5.62 gun deaths per 100,000 children. That's a +29.5% increase from 2019. Most of these deaths were homicides (64.3%), followed by suicides (29.7%) and unintentional deaths (3.4%). 

The number of murdered youths rose by a staggering +39.1% YoY. We have written earlier NewsWires on the rise of violent crime among the general public. (See “FBI Releases Official 2020 Crime Report.”) And kids are not immune to this violence. They too are victims.

The second leading cause of death was motor vehicle fatalities, with 5.11 deaths per 100,000 children. Just 20 years ago, kids were over 2X more likely to die in a car accident than from a firearm.

But because fatal car accidents have continued to decline steeply while firearm deaths have remained steady and begun rising in recent years, children and teens are now more likely to die from gun violence.

Drug overdoses and poisonings shot from the number six spot to number three, with 2.22 deaths per 100,000 children. That's a whopping +83.5% YoY increase. As we have written in the past, this is not due to more kids trying dangerous drugs, but rather to increased accidental exposure to fentanyl. (See "Drug Overdose Deaths Continue Their Relentless Rise.”) 

Of course, all three of these leading causes of death are skewed towards teenagers. For children aged 1-4, unintentional injuries and congenital malformations are the top two causes of death. And for children aged 5-9, it's unintentional injuries and cancer.

When the 2021 child mortality data is released, I suspect firearm deaths and drug overdoses will continue to grow. The rise of violent crime has continued into 2022. And the fentanyl-fueled opioid epidemic is still reaching new highs. 

The question is, will these data spur legislators to do something that would reduce these deaths? There is some new momentum to curb the opioid epidemic.

The Biden administration’s 2023 budget proposal includes $600M to fight drug smuggling. Half the money would go to Customs and Border Protection, and the other half would go to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Biden is also calling for increased distribution of naloxone, a medicine that can reverse overdoses.

None of this, frankly, may do much. More promising are efforts by local DAs to bring homicide charges against dealers who knowingly sell fentanyl that causes a death.

It’s less clear what will happen that might reduce firearm deaths. After the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Senator Schumer cited these child mortality numbers in a plea for increased gun control.

A bipartisan group of senators is currently working to negotiate new legislation around red flag laws, background checks, and investments in school security. But it’s still doubtful that any bill could get the 60 votes required to pass the filibuster bar.

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.