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The death rate for Americans in firearm homicides rose nearly 35% in 2020 to the highest level in more than 25 years, according to new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Amid the pandemic and the recession that followed, gun homicide rates rose the most among groups already most at risk, the researchers found, including people in poor areas, young men and blacks.
In 2020, the firearm homicide rate was 6.1 per 100,000 Americans, up from 4.6 the year before.
“These findings underscore the importance of comprehensive approaches that can stop violence now and prevent future deaths,” said Dr. Debra Houry, acting senior deputy director of the CDC.
No group was more affected than blacks, who die from firearm homicides at a much higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group.
Black men and boys ages 10 to 24 died from firearm homicide 21 times more often than white men in the same age groups, the report found.
Worse still, 2020 widened the gap between blacks and other groups: The firearm homicide rate among non-Hispanic blacks increased by 7.5 percentage points, an increase more than four times greater than any other.
“We are losing too many children and youth of our nation, specifically Black children and Black youth,” Houry said.
More than 19,000 homicides in 2020 involved a firearm, an increase of nearly 5,000 from 2019.
The findings follow statistics released last fall by the CDC and the FBI showing the US saw an unprecedented rise in murders in 2020, a nearly 30% increase from 2019.
One possible explanation for the jump was stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as “changes and disruptions in services and education, social isolation, economic stressors such as job loss, housing instability, and difficulty to cover everyday expenses,” said Thomas Simon, the associate director for science at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Gun deaths have long been linked to economic factors such as income inequality, unemployment, and housing instability.
“When you look at the pandemic, things like job loss, economic stressors, social isolation, they were already hard hit communities,” Houry said.
Even as the number of gun homicides rose sharply, the majority of gun deaths in the US remained suicides, the researchers said.
The firearm suicide rate (about 8 per 100,000 Americans) remained more or less stable in 2020, a trend that has continued for several years.
But that finding comes as overall suicide rates trended lower in 2020, said Mike Anestis, a Rutgers University professor and executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.
He pointed to record gun sales during the pandemic as a likely factor. More than 20 million guns were sold in 2020, up from 12.4 million sold in 2019.
“I think the understated point in this paper is that the changing demographics of gun ownership and the rise in gun ownership likely played a role in that,” Anestis said.
The overall proportion of homicides and suicides caused by firearms also increased, the researchers noted. In 2020, 79% of all homicides and 53% of suicides involved firearms, both figures several percentage points higher than in previous years.
“Both are unacceptably high when you look at the number of people dying by homicide or suicide in the US. We have to do something about it because it’s preventable. These deaths are preventable,” Houry said.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Lifeline for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255 (Spanish: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741.