News & Politics

Study Finds Gun Deaths Dropped Almost a Third Since 1990, Fewer Suicides Use Guns

Protesters demonstrate against gun violence as thousands take part in a nationwide day of action in Portland, Ore., on March 24, 2018. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

While a few high-profile school shootings have drawn attention back to the issue of gun violence in recent months, the number of gun deaths has decreased since 1990, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In 1990, “firearm violence” was the 15th cause of death when ranked by years of age lost. By 2016, it fell to 18th place. Meanwhile, even suicide by firearm (14th in 1990 and 13th in 2016) has fallen below suicide by other means (16th in 1990 and 12th in 2016).

Deaths by firearm violence decreased by 28.5 percent between 1990 and 2016. Even suicides by firearm dropped by 13.2 percent, the JAMA study found. Meanwhile, suicide by other means increased by 16.9 percent.

While deaths by firearm still accounted for 3.98 deaths per 100,000, they fell rather short of the number of suicides by firearm at 6.39 deaths per 100,000.

Coronary heart disease remained the top cause of death, from 1990 to 2016, followed by lung cancer. Motor vehicle injuries, the third leading cause of death in 1990, dropped to number 6 in 2016. Notably, opiod use disorders, which barely registered at number 52 in 1990, became the 15th leading cause of death in 2016. Cirrhosis/liver disease as a result of alcohol use increased shot up from number 27 in 1990 to number 19 in 2016.

Hawaii had the highest life expectancy at birth in 2016 at 81.3 years, while Mississippi had the lowest at 74.7 years. Other high-life-expectancy states included California (80.9 years), Connecticut (80.8 years), Minnesota (80.8 years), and New York (80.5 years). Other low-life-expectancy states included West Virginia (75.3 years), Alabama (75.4 years), Louisiana (75.6 years), and Oklahoma (75.7 years).

The study found that high body-mass index (BMI), smoking, and high fasting plasma glucose (a measurement of glucose in the blood after 8 hours of fasting, high levels are associated with diabetes) are the three most important risk factors in the United States. Smoking is decreasing, but high BMI and fasting plasma glucose levels are increasing.

Levels of obesity and being overweight increased between 1990 and 2016. While physical activity rates increased between these 26 years, the increase levels were not enough to control weight gain. Physical inactivity is a risk factor for many diseases, but increasing activity on its own is not enough to reduce or prevent weight gain.

The drop in firearm deaths provided a helpful silver lining amidst this very negative news. Even so, the JAMA authors still plugged gun control. “There is evidence that gun control achieved through background checks reduces homicide and suicide,” they wrote. “There is a need for comprehensive studies of the epidemiology of gun violence in the United States to inform the ongoing gun control debate.”

This last sentence proved particularly problematic, as it suggested that gun violence is a disease. Over in London, England, homicides by knife have increased, even surpassing the number of gun deaths in New York City.

Like knives, firearms are a tool — they have no agency in themselves. If gun violence is an “epidemic,” it is an epidemic of the human heart. Gun control cannot stop angry and violent people from killing innocents.

Furthermore, death by firearm — whether in suicide or homicide — did not come near the top five causes of death in 2016: heart disease, lung cancer, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Alzheimer’s/dementia, and colon cancer.

Too many Americans still use firearms to kill one another. Tragedies like the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Fla. are unacceptable, but there are many ways to defend students at school beyond the standard call for gun control.

This study showed that the country is already moving in the right direction. Americans are much more likely to kill themselves through unhealthy habits, and even suicide, than they are to die from being shot by someone else. This may not be good news overall, but the decline in gun deaths is good news, and should not be obscured by the recent push for gun control.